Book Review: Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura

During my bouts of insomnia, I finished Inheritance from Mother (New York Times Review) by Japanese novelist, Minae Mizumura. Having lived in Japan the past five years, helped me enjoy the book at a deeper level than a foreigner coming at it without an understanding of the culture and modern life in Japan. It is several stories in one, all centered around the main character, Mitsuki Katsura. She is a part-time French language professor at a private university in Tokyo. I work for a private university foundation here in the Kansai (west) region of Japan. There are many “part-time” workers, which are basically “hourly-wage” employees, doing the same job as full-time employees, but making much less money and receiving less benefits. There are a lot of people in this situation in a variety of fields. I am not sure how many exactly, but it is a way for businesses to save money and employ more people.

Mitsuki is in her mid-50s and facing a lot. She is taking care of a selfish and demanding dying mother, contemplating divorce from a husband she finds is cheating on her and plotting to divorce her and she is coming to grips with her own old age, both in a financial sense and happiness sense. I agree with the NY Times review in that the book drags on a bit, it took too many chapters for her mother to die. I think because the book was originally released serially in a Tokyo newspaper, it stretched out many parts, but fortunately, each chapter ends with a provocative little “cliffhanger” to keep people reading.

As my uncle and mom always say, “getting old sucks” and the book a good read for diving into the details of caring for sick parent. Mizumura the author, goes into the family background, giving an overview of each character through the generations of family. The book also gives insight to life here, especially the part that people outside Japan don’t know about. I also liked reading about long marriages. I’ve been married for over 20 years and feel lucky that I am still in love with my wife. Many marriages, and as I have been hearing from friends here, many marriages in Japan, older husbands and wives live separate lives and are together for financial reasons only.

The book does end on a hopeful note and it gave me encouragement that people can continue to grow and try new things even into their “old age”. I found the book in our school library and it was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I would like to thank the Japan Foundation for funding the publication of the book.

“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review


I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.


Latest Reading: “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

During the fall break holiday, I completed Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Demick. She is the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief. Nothing to Envy focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors over 15 years. They are all from the city of Chongin, an industrial port city near the border with Russia and China. She goes into detail about their lives before they left, their escape and how they got on in South Korea.

I am fascinated with North Korea’s totalitarian regime. I can’t believe that a family can maintain control over an entire country in this century. Nadia and I watched a documentary in 2001 about a North Korean family living in the rural north, who had to send their 5-year old child away to the capital because they couldn’t feed him. It broke my heart then, before I had kids, and seeing it today I would have a stronger reaction.

When I hear of government repression, I always think about the men that are actually doing the repression. Why do they agree to round up ordinary citizens, interrogate them, hold them prisoner in work camps, etc? And to do so just because of one man (Kim Il-Sung) and his descendants?  I understand human nature and resistance to change and their limited experience and perspective, and I marvel at the ability of humans to adapt to circumstances so that almost anything can be regarded as normal. The book made me angry at the North Korean government. The people featured in the book understood the lies, and fought against them, but they were the minority.

It would be nice for the US and other rich nations to help them, but with nuclear capability and a 1-million strong armed force, it would be crazy to interfere too much. Everyone sees eventually the influences of the outside world breaking down the government and them losing control and I predict that it will happen in my lifetime. It will be extremely tough on South Korea, but with economic help from neighbors China, Japan, Russia, and the west, I think they will eventually work it out. Not as fast as Germany because of how low North Koreans are, but they will get there.

I highly recommend the book. I have been reading a lot about Japan and the region and hope to get to both South and North Korea in my time here. Demick also wrote a book about life in one street in Sarajevo during the siege that I would also like to read.

Latest Reading: “A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

I recently completed the 2012 Man Booker Prize Winning book, “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. The Booker Prize is the Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary prize and former winners are Salman Rushdie, and books like The English Patient. 

The book really has two levels. The first is the story of a retired English gentleman who receives 500 British Pounds and a diary of an old friend, from the will of the mother of an ex-girlfriend. The plot revolves around the narrator finding out why and reflecting on what happened 40 years ago when he dated the girl. The other level is the author writing about old age and looking back on one’s life. There were some very good passages to think about. Julian Barnes is in his sixties and his wife passed away a couple of years ago, so his latest books have been about death.

I had a bit of a hard time figuring out what happened in the story, but the comments under the reviews of the book really helped. What did we do before the internet???? I highlighted some bits in my e-book version. I love electronic books for that. The iPad library and books are really easy to read and so easy to download. It makes hauling books around the world obsolete as well as my abandoned dream of having a huge library in my house. The only bad thing is you can’t lend books to friends.

Here were the “food for thought” from the book regarding getting older.

  • “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”
  • “They grow up so quickly, don’t they? when all you really mean is: time goes faster for me nowadays.
  • “he took off with someone who looked rather like her, but was that crucial ten years younger”
  • “history is not the lies of victors…it’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”
  • “Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records-in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.”
  • “But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions-and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty. I’m nostalgic for my early time with Margaret, for Susie’s birth and first years…”
  • “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly…”
  • “when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully”
  • “often in those long waking nights that age imposes.”
  • “and of the luck any parent has when a child is born with 4 limbs, a normal brain, and the emotional makeup that allows the child, to lead any sort of life. May you be ordinary, as the poet once wished the newborn baby.”
  • “You get towards the end of life- no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.”

I guess that turning 45 last week has me thinking of getting to the stage of “old age.” I find that I am still in good health and feel young now. I am enjoying every year more and more and discover that as I get older, I get happier.