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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2017 > October

The All-Americans

The All-Americans
By Angela Farley

Amazon Digital Services, 2017

We live in an age of terrorism. We live in an age of gun violence. When the two are combined on American soil, with innocent hostages slated for execution, our sense of safety unravels.

In this gripping story, twelve random strangers are kidnapped in movie theatres across the United States. They are imprisoned by operatives intent on punishing Americans for the violence they’ve inflicted in other parts of the world during the war on terror. Oddly, the terrorists themselves are for the most part not foreigners, but mercenaries hired to execute the victims one by one. And, foiling their plan to kill all-Americans, the victims are not all native-born citizens of the United States. This is the first twist this author introduces to her plot. It is a telling one, because it indicates the real nature of our diverse society. What truly, does it mean to be an American, she suggests. As the book progresses, it becomes a fascinating study of the relationships that develop between some of the captives and their captors. If the captor can begin to see his victim as a human being, then there is a possibility of hope. But that is not all. The captive too, can shape the narrative if given time to think, observe, and above all, have someone else to live for.

I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Farley when she shared an author event with me at Orinda Books, California, on October 21. She is a nurse by profession, and her knowledge of physiology gives her story a lot of credibility as she describes the reactions of the victims to their predicament. Angela also remarked during her reading of passages from The All-Americans that she reflected on her time in the Emergency Room. Patients would come in with life-altering illnesses or injuries, all of them shocked to find themselves in this situation. Some would fight for their lives and some would give up. The will to live is what enables some victims of threatened death to survive. In another twist on the expected, Angela Farley shows us that this will can change throughout the ordeal; a chance to live given up one moment may not be the end, and conversely, a determination to survive may be snuffed out by a captor’s quick trigger.

Angela Farley has written a movie-worthy thriller, as much a psychological study of captives and captors as an action-filled story. This book kept me up for hours as I read it in a single sitting.

The Myth of You and Me

By Leah Stewart
Broadway Books, 2006

As the novels of Elena Ferrante prove, books about the friendships of girls are having a moment. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is in realist mode, a realism so acute that people have obsessed about Ferrante’s true identity, as if to out her as a memoirist rather than a novelist.

What is the role of one’s own experience in fiction, and what comes from tapping into a universal subconscious or semi-conscious experience? Ah, the slippery mind and even more slippery memory! Memories shape our present, and unconscious motivations formed from memories push us in ways we are not aware of. The past and the present weave together, all acting on us at the same time. Ferrante’s characters have four complete novels in which to complete their psychological tasks based on the events of their childhoods. So, the novelist who sets herself the task of unpacking the mystery of motivation in one book has my sympathy.

A dream-like quality of past and present interacting infuses The Myth of You and Me.
Leah Stewart begins her story eight years after Sonia (you) and Cameron (me) have ended their girlhood friendship. The book moves back in forth in time, showing how the choices each of these girls made is due to her own need for self-affirmation in the face of parental disapproval or indifference. As I read Leah Stewart’s author bio after I read this book I realized that she’s lived in all the places she writes about, and had the peripatetic childhood of her protagonist. But this is fiction, and the setting was, I felt, a sideshow to the plot. Which concerns a power dynamic between two very different girls, a dynamic that fuels their subsequent lives. As close as they are, they, like everyone else, make choices they can’t fully explain.

I won’t be a spoiler, because this story is complicated. But the truth is that the friendships
of girls are intense, way more intense than male friendships. In this hyper-sexualized age, that
closeness may be misunderstood. I’d say that when girls undergo together the utter sea-change of puberty their relationship can be as close as any known to humans. It’s a mental communion in which best friends can say absolutely anything to each other. Sometimes, of course, those spoken words can be hurtful. This intimacy between teenage best friends cannot be replicated in later life. It has to start young, and if we’re lucky, can continue for the rest of our lives. The mysteries of changing bodies, the secrets, the boyfriends, the sometimes inexplicable choice of life partners, the tests all of us endure as we grow up, all become tolerable because we have a friend to tell. When a friend does something unforgivably hurtful to the other and the relationship ends, that can haunt a girl’s future.

Leah Stewart, in her afterword to the book, speaks of writing it as she awaited the birth of
her child. So she is still close in time to the memory of her bestie. I am an older woman, and I
felt tears rising as I ended this book. I have lost too many friends in the past few years. Now, my dear friend, whom I have known since I was thirteen, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I cannot imagine life without her. Everything we’ve shared, all the secrets and the longings and
the disappointments and the triumphs – who else will be able to remember these? All those
things will happen to other girls as they grow up, but our story will be gone. I can only take
comfort from the fact that these close relationships will continue for those to come after us.

Leah Stewart has hit upon a universal truth in this story. She’s written several more books
and I intend to read them.

The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
First Vintage International Edition, 1995

Mrs. Bennet, meet Sachiko Makioka!

The Makioka Sisters, a twentieth century Japanese classic by Junichiro Tanizaki, came to my attention through a literary blog I follow, Whispering Gums. I’m so glad to have read it.

As in Jane Austen’s books, this story takes place in a time of pending and actual war, yet focuses on domestic life. Just as Jane Austen is criticized by the misguided for writing books in which nothing much happens, this story meanders through the life of the four Makioka sisters in the years 1938 to 1941, with the overarching theme being the need for a woman to find a husband. As in Austen’s works, the author critiques prevailing social mores. Perhaps even surpassing Austen in its leisurely and detailed scene-setting, Tanizaki’s final chapters deliver a quiet bombshell.

Sachiko Makioka and her older sister Tsuruko are married with children. The two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are single. It is the family’s responsibility to get Yukiko safely wedded. For until the third sister is married, the fourth must wait.

Marriages were arranged at that time in Japan. The families of eligible young women would be approached by intermediaries suggesting a suitable spouse. After “investigations” by the families on both sides, a meeting would be arranged. This was often a dinner party. The idea was to allow the potential couple to meet in a chaperoned setting but in an enjoyable and relaxed way, so that conversation could flow. Decisions could be made in a very short time following this “miai,” with little time for the couple to really get to know each other.

Junichiro is a master of dialogue, particularly of the light, bantering, dinner party kind. Gentle jokes from a foreign culture and a different century must be hard to get across, but translator Edward G. Seidensticker does a marvelous job of this.

When the story starts, Yukiko has a history of failure in the marriage market. While her sister Taeko is shockingly independent, trying to support herself through making dolls and later through learning to be a seamstress, Yukiko is extraordinarily passive. Now in her thirties, she is so extremely shy she cannot make conversation. Yet, in a response that is sadly familiar today, Sachiko worries that Yukiko’s problem must be a physical imperfection. The only possible blemish is a transitory brown spot above Yukiko’s eye, and Sachiko obsesses about this – allowing others to define a woman’s attractiveness. For Yukiko’s part, she seems happy enough in her role of unpaid baby-sitter and nurse for her sisters’ children.

A sub-text of this story is how much harder it is for women with many children, like Tsuruko, than for women with one child, like Sachiko. Yet this theme is very much linked to the main problem of the novel, which deals with the eligibility issues of the younger sisters. Tsuruko and her husband and six children have moved to Tokyo, where they must cope with an expensive big city lifestyle, finding it very difficult. Sachiko, on the other hand, still lives in Osaka, where everything is familiar. Sachiko is happily married to the thoughtful Teinosuke, one of the most attractive characters in the novel. She spends her days practicing calligraphy, goes to the beauty parlor, sees a lot of movies, often dines out. It is a very recognizable life to us, and yet aspects of it are ritualized and slow to change. There are some wonderful scenes of excursions to see cherry blossoms and fireflies, in which certain clothes are worn, and we see the expectation that year after year, elaborate services, with entertainment and catering, must be provided to honor the anniversary of parents’ deaths.

Yet war is coming, and as the novel progresses, the once comfortable Makioka household becomes depleted of its fine wines and the older sister, Tsuruko becomes more and more desperate for the financial burden of the younger sisters to be lifted by their marriages.

Sachiko, though, is the classic unreliable narrator. She is half aware that it suits her very well to have Yukiko available to help her with her daughter, Etsuko. She is much more worried about Taeko, who has had undesirable relationships with men, but cannot marry until Yukiko does. Taeko’s reputation is such that it sullies Yukiko’s by association, and eventually the family takes action, which only makes matters worse. Sachiko’s frantic yet indecisive behavior towards the naughty Taeko reminds one of the Bennets’ despair about Lydia in Pride and Prejudice.

This novel builds slowly, showing us a world which is both modern and stultified. It protected women, but also bound them in convention. Symbolically, the female characters wear Western clothes when they want to be comfortable, but in situations like the marriage negotiations, sit stiff and uncomfortable in rigid Japanese dress. Both the old-fashioned, obedient Yukiko and the independent Taeko are caught in impossible positions.

Junichiro Tanizaki, 1886-1965, lived through the great upheaval of the Second World War. Without making an overtly political point, Tanizaki shows the beauty and appeal of traditional Japanese culture, and its dark side, in which non-conformity is punished severely. A moral failure or just an inability to think independently? That’s for the reader to decide.