Tag: Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara standing in front of a dark gray backdrop, images of each book cover mentioned in this article are superimposed beside her.

‘A Little Life’ Author Hanya Yanagihara’s Favorite Books

Hanya Yanagihara, author of The People in the Trees and A Little Life, (for which she was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2015) is a well-read lover of literature, and as such, has some incredible book recommendations for her readers. For those of you who admire Yanagihara’s work and wish to get a sense of where she gets her inspiration from, consider picking up one of the following:

 

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

 

Book cover of The Buried Giant

Image via Amazon

 

According to Yanagihara, this book, by the author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, is one of the best books of 2015. Of Ishiguro and his work, she has said:

 

I think that he’s really my favorite writer because he has one theme, and that theme is memory, and in every single book he makes a different book, and that is so incredibly hard, you know, I mean to sort of say ‘Oh I don’t care about genre, I don’t care about conventions,’ and to really remake an entire universe around this one idea is very, very hard.

 

Like Yanagihara, Ishiguro’s work is known for its haunting quality of staying with you long after you’ve read it.

 

Synopsis:

 

“In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share. By turns savage, suspenseful, and intensely moving, The Buried Giant is a luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory.”

 

Hilary Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien

 

Book cover of The Giant, O'Brien

Image via Goodreads

 

Yanagihara named this author as one she admires for the fact that “mid-career [Mantel] completely switched styles.” Yanagihara acknowledges The Giant, O’Brien as the turning point where “she completely switched forms, she became a historical novelist.” Mantel’s work ranks among Yanagihara’s favorites because, as she says, “all the books are satisfying and both the styles are distinctly hers.”

 

Synopsis:

 

“London, 1782: center of science and commerce, home to the newly rich and the desperately poor. In the midst of it all is the Giant, O’Brien, a freak of nature, a man of song and story who trusts in myths, fairies, miracles, and little people. He has come from Ireland to exhibit his size for money. O’Brien’s opposite is a man of science, the famed anatomist John Hunter, who lusts after the Giant’s corpse as a medical curiosity, a boon to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

In her acclaimed novel, two-time Man Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel tells of the fated convergence of Ireland and England. As belief wrestles knowledge and science wrestles song, so The Giant, O’Brien calls to us from a fork in the road as a tale of time, and a timeless tale.”

 

John Banville’s The Sea

 

Book cover of The Sea

Image via Amazon

 

This Man Booker Prize winning author is a favorite of Yanagihara, who says that “No one writes as beautifully as [Banville] does.” The Sea won Banville the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and is widely considered to be one of the best examples of his literary aptitude.

 

Synopsis:

 

In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.

 

Peter Rock’s My Abandonment

 

Book cover of My Abandonment

Image via Goodreads

 

My Abandonment is something of Yanagihara’s dark horse; she has referred to Peter Rock as being a “little-known American author” whose work deserves far more attention. According to Yanagihara, My Abandonment is “one of the best books of the past decade… a beautiful, bleak little book.”

 

Synopsis:

 

In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.

 

Mona Simpson’s Off Keck Road

 

Book cover of Off Keck Road

Image via Amazon

 

Yanagihara recommends this book specifically in relation to her book, A Little Life, saying that it is about “a tiny life, a life that’s kind of perfectly lived.”

 

Synopsis:

 

In this flawless novella, Mona Simpson turns her powers of observation toward characters who, unlike Ann and Adele August in her bestselling Anywhere but Here, choose to stay rather than go. 

As a high school student in Green Bay, Bea Maxwell raised money for good causes; later, she became a successful real estate agent and an accomplished knitter. The one thing missing from her life is a romantic relationship. She soon settles comfortably into the role of stylish spinster and do-gooder. Woven into Bea’s story are stories of other lifelong residents of Green Bay and the changes time brings to a town and its residents. This pure and simple work once again proves Mona Simpson one of the defining writers of her generation.

 

Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac

 

Book cover of Hotel du Lac

Image via Amazon

 

Yanagihara has praised Anita Brookner’s work as “perfect, consistent books about loneliness and about the smallness of life.” 

 

Synopsis:

 

“In the novel that won her the Booker Prize and established her international reputation, Anita Brookner finds a new vocabulary for framing the eternal question ‘Why love?’ It tells the story of Edith Hope, who writes romance novels under a pseudonym. When her life begins to resemble the plots of her own novels, however, Edith flees to Switzerland, where the quiet luxury of the Hotel du Lac promises to restore her to her senses.

But instead of peace and rest, Edith finds herself sequestered at the hotel with an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. She also attracts the attention of a worldly man determined to release her unused capacity for mischief and pleasure. Beautifully observed, witheringly funny, Hotel du Lac is Brookner at her most stylish and potently subversive.”

 

Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others

 

Book cover of The Lives of Others

Image via Lonesome Reader

 

Yanagihara has named Mukherjee as an author whose work is relatively new to the States. She says that he is known for writing “these very odd books.” 

 

Synopsis:

 

“The aging patriarch and matriarch of the Ghosh family preside over their large household, made up of their five adult children and their respective children, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. Each set of family members occupies a floor of the home, in accordance to their standing within the family. Poisonous rivalries between sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business threaten to unravel bonds of kinship as social unrest brews in greater Indian society. This is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider. The eldest grandchild, Supratik, compelled by his idealism, becomes dangerously involved in extremist political activism―an action that further catalyzes the decay of the Ghosh home.

Ambitious, rich, and compassionate, The Lives of Others anatomizes the soul of a nation as it unfolds a family history, at the same time as it questions the nature of political action and the limits of empathy. It is a novel of unflinching power and emotional force.”

 

Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn

 

Book cover of Coral Glynn

Image via Goodreads

 

Yanagihara refers to this as a “really strange shapeshifter of a book” that blends genre and convention into a really well-done story.

 

Synopsis:

 

“Coral Glynn arrives at Hart House, an isolated manse in the English countryside, early in the very wet spring of 1950, to nurse the elderly Mrs. Hart, who is dying of cancer. Hart House is also inhabited by Mrs. Prence, the perpetually disgruntled housekeeper, and Major Clement Hart, Mrs. Hart’s war-ravaged son, who is struggling to come to terms with his latent homosexuality. When a child’s game goes violently awry in the woods surrounding Hart House, a great shadow―love, perhaps―descends upon its inhabitants. Like the misguided child’s play, other seemingly random events―a torn dress, a missing ring, a lost letter―propel Coral and Clement into the dark thicket of marriage.

A period novel observed through a refreshingly gimlet eye, Coral Glynn explores how quickly need and desire can blossom into love, and just as quickly transform into something less categorical. Borrowing from themes and characters prevalent in the work of mid-twentieth-century British women writers, Peter Cameron examines how we live and how we love―with his customary empathy and wit.”

 

 

Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One

 

Book cover of I Am No One

Image via Amazon

 

Yanagihara read this work before its publication, describing it as “about the surveillance state with a very unreliable narrator.”

 

Synopsis:

 

“After a decade living in England, Jeremy O’Keefe returns to New York, where he has been hired as a professor of German history at New York University. Though comfortable in his new life, and happy to be near his daughter once again, Jeremy continues to feel the quiet pangs of loneliness. Walking through the city at night, it’s as though he could disappear and no one would even notice.

But soon, Jeremy’s life begins taking strange turns: boxes containing records of his online activity are delivered to his apartment, a young man seems to be following him, and his elderly mother receives anonymous phone calls slandering her son. Why, he wonders, would anyone want to watch him so closely, and, even more upsetting, why would they alert him to the fact that he was being watched? 

As Jeremy takes stock of the entanglements that marked his years abroad, he wonders if he has unwittingly committed a crime so serious as to make him an enemy of the state. Moving towards a shattering reassessment of what it means to be free in a time of ever more intrusive surveillance, Jeremy is forced to ask himself whether he is “no one,” as he believes, or a traitor not just to his country but to everyone around him.”

 

 

 

Featured Image Via Het Financieele Dagblad, Amazon, Goodreads, Lonesome Reader, and Amazon. Synopses via Amazon.

 

Hanya Yanagihara in an interview

Is ‘A Little Life’ Actually a Good Book?

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, is controversial. Although shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award, the quality of the book has been relentlessly questioned since its release. There are several criticisms that often come up when the book is challenged, but the two most prominent complaints are as follows:

 

  1. The book is melodramatic.
  2. The characters are underdeveloped.

 

As someone who cannot make up their mind about the novel, I’d like to get into exactly why these criticisms are being made, and see what these issues mean for the quality of the book.

 

Hanya Yanagihara sitting on a chair in her apartment.

Image via The Guardian

 

 


SPOILERS AHEAD


 

 

This may go without saying, but there will be some no-holds-barred spoilers ahead, so if you’d like to avoid those, stop here. Furthermore, A Little Life takes a head-on approach to a very wide variety of troubling subject matter, including child sexual abuse, self-harm, mental illness and suicide, medical and surgical imagery, and domestic violence. If you need to avoid any of these themes, you should also stop here and I would also suggest that you avoid the novel in its entirety.

 

The Melodrama

 

A Little Life starts off as one book, and ends as another. When you begin to read it, you think you’re in for a typical “friends trying to make it in the big city” story, the kind you’re familiar with from other ensemble NYC novels and critically-acclaimed indie movies. It very quickly becomes not that. The first fifty pages or so lead you through three of the characters’ origin stories, pointedly leaving out just one of them.

 

A street sign for Lispenard Street.

Image via Walking New York

 

The one omitted, Jude, sticks out immediately as the mysterious member of the group, but given his exceptionally handsome face and remarkable intelligence, he is absolutely captivating. While the backgrounds of other characters come freely and unbidden shortly after they are introduced, Jude’s story is not revealed until deep into the novel. The other characters, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Harold, Jude’s mentor and later adoptive father, have all certainly suffered in their pasts, but none of them have experienced trauma to the degree that Jude has, and as such, Jude is extremely resistant to opening up about his struggles.

 

The trajectory of Jude’s past is this: abandoned as an infant, he is raised by abusive monks until one of the monks, Brother Luke, a pedophile who has been grooming Jude so that he can kidnap him and exploit him by forcing him into sex work, does so. When Brother Luke  is discovered by police, and Jude is rescued, Jude is placed into a group home, where he is abused again. Jude attempts escape by hitchhiking to Boston, again being forced into sex work to facilitate his travels. After contracting an STD, Jude is captured by Dr. Traylor, who holds him prisoner under the guise of treating his illness. Traylor abuses Jude and after a period of months, runs him over with a car. This causes Jude to suffer from chronic episodes of severe pain as a result of nerve damage. He is taken into the care of a social worker who encourages him to go to college. At the age of sixteen, he is a first-year undergraduate student and meets Malcolm, JB, and Willem. The novel begins after the main four have been out of grad school for a few years.

 

Many people have pointed out that while any one of these events happening to a person are believable, the notion that one person could be so incredibly unfortunate to have all these things happen to him is a bit much. After a certain point, it becomes difficult to comprehend the sheer amount of pain this man has gone through, and as a result, it is difficult to really empathize with him. One may begin to feel that Yanagihara is piling all this misery on Jude only to make us pity him.

 

On the subject of this particular criticism, Yanagihara herself has said:

 

I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste.

 

The U.S. and U.K. covers of A Little Life

Image via Gathering Books

 

The Characters

 

JB, Jude, Willem, and Malcolm. If you read the blurb of the book, or indeed, any summary that accompanies the book’s retail listings, you are led to believe that these four men comprise a quartet of characters we follow through the novel. While these four characters are indeed present, around a sixth of the way through the book it becomes clear that our protagonist is Jude. The other three men are by no means erased from the novel, but JB and Malcolm are definitely pushed to the margins, while Jude and Willem (by virtue of his close relationship to Jude) take center stage.

 

Jude is surrounded by people who absolutely love him. Willem, his best-friend and later partner, shows him a stubborn amount of affection and care, and Jude’s friends, his adoptive parents, even his doctor all demonstrate the desire to somehow make him better; to cure him, to make him value himself and his life and want to keep living. As I said earlier, the spoilers here will be comprehensive, so if you don’t want to know the absolute ending of the novel stop right here.

 

A fanart depiction of Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm sitting down for dinner at a restaurant.

Image via Pinterest

 

The final act of the novel begins with Willem and Malcolm dying in a vicious car accident. Jude’s grief destroys him, his loved ones do not succeed in their efforts to help him recover, and the novel ends with Harold, in the first-person, telling the story of Jude’s last days. Jude’s funeral has an incredible turnout of people who all deeply loved Jude, yet none of them were able to change the course of his life. Even Harold expresses his defeat, saying that despite everything he had hoped for, he always knew how Jude would leave him. I suppose in this moment, Harold is meant to be speaking for us, the readers, who also would have held out hope for Jude’s recovery despite knowing that he was more than likely to die by his own means.

 

A Little Life is a long book, about 720 pages of emotional turmoil, and many readers feel jilted by Jude’s inability to stay alive in spite of the abundance of loving support figures he is surrounded by. These readers have argued that Jude begins the novel much the way he ends it, a point even made within the universe of the book. As Harold reflects on Jude’s death in the final pages, he laments, above all else, the state of mind he died in: “that he died still believing everything he was taught about himself– after you, after me, after all of us who loved him– makes me think that my life has been a failure after all.”

 

Yanagihara has said that the novel exists because she wanted to write a character who would not have the typical redemption arc we have come to expect from sad books with bittersweet endings. She wanted to see if narrative tension could be maintained when you know a character won’t recover. But does that make it okay? What exactly is the point of writing a character this way except to upset people? I have yet to figure this out, although I do think it is at least an interesting refutation of literary convention.

 

Having just finished my first read of the novel, I know that I will be going back for a second read-through (although I absolutely need a recovery period before trying to take that on again). I thoroughly enjoyed the process of the novel, but when I finished it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied by the ending, but my being unsatisfied doesn’t make A Little Life a bad book. Once I could safely read the reviews without having to worry about spoiling the story, I was perplexed by all the issues people had with it. I thought Jude’s past was certainly a lot, but it’s fiction, it doesn’t really have to be believable, does it? And the relentless suffering he deals with works to serve Yanagihara’s effort to write a truly unsalvageable character. Ultimately, I believe that whether or not A Little Life is worth reading fully depends on what you expect this book to do for you. As a reader, I had no expectations, and so I was free to enjoy the work for what it is, reading the characters as being representatives of nothing but themselves, much in the way I later found out was Yanagihara’s intention.

 

Now, should you read A Little Life? If you are sensitive to any of the extremely distressing subject matter I’ve previously listed, then no, definitely not. But if you can read such things with minimal discomfort, I think it’s worth a shot. The reasons people seem to take against the book are also reasons why you might love it. 

 

Featured Image via Wikipedia and SBS Life.

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Three Asian-American Writers You Need To Be Reading!

Do you like to read Asian American writing? If you do, YES, you are with me now! If you don’t, OK, this booklist will totally change your vision and life. Three red-letter Asian American writers and their books: Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

 

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

RO+MYM

Images via Smith College and Goodreads

Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American novelist, filmmaker, and Zen priest. Before her writing career, Ozeki had worked in the TV industry for ten years and produced a documentary Halving the Bones (1995). This working experience as a TV producer/documentarian nourishes her writing style. When reading her novels it can feel as though you are watching a movie or TV series because the way some cinematic techniques, such as montage or multi-narratives, have influenced her reflects on page . Topics of her writing ranges from race, gender, environmental crisis, to the aesthetics of Zen.

My Year of Meats, published in 1998, is Ozkei’s second novel. The story starts with Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian, who works for BEEF-EX, a Texas-based meat lobbying firm. Her duty is to produce My American Wife! which is a TV reality show featuring American housewives and her authentic American life, food, and belief. Jane is pressured by the company to promote the advantage of eating beef as a wholesome American lifestyle. However, Jane gradually realizes the unspeakable truth hidden within the meat industry. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a Japanese housewife Akiko is watching My American Wife! in her Tokyo apartment. She is carefully jotting down the beef diner recipe the TV show introduces because that will also be served as the diner for her husband John Ueno, the executive of BEEF-EX. Akiko has been struggling with infertility however is pressured by John to eat more beef because John believes that “Beef is the Best” and beef can bring them children symboling a traditional American family.

Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita

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Images via Star Tribune and Amazon

Karen Tei Yamashita is a Japanese-American writer who is a Professor of Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writing contains huge elements of magical realism and transnational vision. Yamashita’s novels pays attention to the phenomena of polyglot and multicultural communities in an increasingly globalized age. Reading her novels, you may feel like you are cruising a world without boundaries: of race, gender, time, and space.

Published in 1997, Tropic of Orange rewrites how a novel can smash human concepts of geographical, cultural, and temporal limits. The book is set in Los Angels and Mexico with a group of diverse ethnic people dominating each mysterious life. The story covers the span of seven days, with each chapter focusing on specific days and characters. We have Emi, a Japanese-American TV executive, and her lover Gabriel Balboa, a Latino journalist, chasing news in LA. They have a reliable but mysterious source of news: Buzzworm, an African American who roams LA streets offering advice. Gabriel owns a home in Mexico in which a special orange falls from a tree and is picked up by the mystical character Arcangel who carries the fruit across the U.S.- Mexico border and the Tropic of Cancer. With the development of the narratives, we see different lines of story weaving into a unexpected web.
 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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                                                                                                                 Images via The Cut and Amazon 

Born in Hawaii, Hanya Yanagihara is considered one of the most talented writers in the publishing industry in the last decade. Working as a chief editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the forty-year-old Yanagihara, without any training in fictional writing, amazed the industry in 2013 with the publication of her first novel The People in the Trees. The novel is based on the real-life case of the virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, was praised as one of the best novels of 2013. Though Yanagihara spent sixteen years completing The People in the Trees, she established A Little Life, a novel with the same depth and effort as the first one, in eighteen months. A Little Life was published in 2015 and received a volcano of favorable reviews.

Praised as the greatest gay novel by The Atlantic, the novel portrays the friendship spanning over thirty years of four men who met each other in college, and their homo/heterosexual romance, lost, and anger they experience throughout their lives. Malcolm is an architect; JB is a portrait artist; Willem is an actor; Jude is a lawyer. The story begins with Willem and Jude, both of whom graduated from distinguished university, co-rent a small apartment in New York City: Malcolm and JB, born in rich families, have huge passion for art but feel uncertain about the future. Willem is a poor guy from a farm in the midwest, insisting in acting life in theatre-he feels responsible for these old friends, especially for Jude; Jude is the most successful one among the four-he has a great career as a attorney but, as if his mysterious crippled leg, Jude himself is mysterious too: no one knows his past. With deeper description of Jude, Yanagihara performs how the past tangles with not only Jude’s life but the other three characters.
         
 

Featured Image via Ruth Ozeki, Writing like an Asian, and The Cut