Book Reviews In the Wild

20170415_174812-e1492299406699.jpgSo far, 2017 has been a good reading year. I’m even a few books ahead on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I wanted to post links to some reviews I’ve written for other sites in the past few months (in case you all missed me).

Cockroaches, written by Scholastique Mukasonga and translated by Jordan Stump, is a memoir from of a survivor of the Rwandan genocides.  What makes her account so moving is that Mukasonga was living in France when the majority of her family was massacred, and so her story is as much about surviving having your loved ones violently taken from you as it is about the years leading up to and surrounding  the horrific event.  You can read my review of Cockroaches at The Quarterly Conversation.

I wasn’t that impressed with South Korean writer Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale (translated by Janet Hong), but I have a pretty low tolerance for performative, avant garde literature.  The story which superficially is about abuse and violence in children devolves in the second half of the book into a meta-fictional hodge-podge. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a more powerful, and less pretentious, novel that deals with similar themes. You can read my review of The Impossible Fairy Tale at The Rumpus.

I’ve also been writing fairly regularly over at Book Riot about translations – mostly lists of book recommendations organized by themes, though there are some essays in the mix. There you’ll find recommendations of Japanese novels, French feminist writers, micropresses or – if you’re feeling political – an essay about hearing Masha Gessen give the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN Festival in New York which shaped my reflections on the current U.S. president’s lack of literary background and inability to articulate clear thoughts.  I’ve been writing at Book Riot for a few months now and am trying to keep my Clippings Page (see the menu above) updated with links.

Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

 

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder (a #WITMonth post)

Title:  The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author:  Yoko Ogawa
Translator:  Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN:  978 0 312 42683 5

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

Diving PoolThe compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella.  The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.

Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesThe Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective.  The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone.  Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.*  Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader.  They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.

The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas.  It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse.  Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa.  The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things.  The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.

Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home.  “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live.  He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school.  Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”

“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.

“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.

“His left leg, to be precise.”

“What happened to him?

“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”

“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.

“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”

“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.

WITMonth15Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager.  A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager.  Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration.  Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic.  She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes.  It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker.  The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.

Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies.  A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.

Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity.  By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals.  She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite.  She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers.  There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire.  Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.

 

*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative.  So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives.  Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.

 

 

 

Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre & Kazuko Y. Behrans)

The description on the back cover of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences compares the sci-fi/fantasy novel to the 2002 horror film The Ring (or Ringu, if you’re a purist who only acknowledges the original 1998 Japanese version). The film plot centers on  **SPOILER ALERT**  a video tape that’s haunted by a murdered girl.  Anyone who watches the tape dies in seven days. Of course there’s a loophole. (There’s always a loophole).

Outside of the initial premise that something you see/watch/read/focus-on-for-an-extended-period-of-time can kill you the plots are very different.  A better comparison is, in my opinion, “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody.   (This novella can be read in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales).  The two share several common themes – time travel, addiction, a mysterious and deadly drug (The Albertine Notes) or poem (Death Sentences), and an opportunity to set things right that comes at the end.  In addition, both stories feature an Asian protagonist and a haunting, fragmented narrative that only gradually resolves itself.

Chiaki’s novel opens in  the1980’s where we meet Sakamoto, a member of a Japanese special police unit tasked with stopping the spread of an unidentified narcotic among the population.  Its victims commit suicide.  We’re quickly told that what we assumed to be a  drug is actually a poem, copied by hand (copier use is now closely monitored by the authorities) and spread from person to person through an  underground network of addicts.

Death Sentences jumps back in time to 1930’s New York, and then forward to Paris in the late 40’s.  Here we witness, through the eyes of the Surrealist André Breton, the discovery of the poem and the emergence of the mysterious poet Who May.  (And it is here that Chiaki accomplishes the truly unimaginable – somehow making the Surrealists interesting!)    Who May will write only three powerful and disturbing poems: “Other World”, “Mirror” and “The Gold of Time”.  These are enough to establish his reputation and his shadowy place in history.  Breton is a witness, forced to watch helplessly as many of his contemporaries succumb to Who May’s art.  After reading only a few lines he will, we learn, spend much of his life seeking “The Gold of Time”.

Duchamp picked at the corner of the manuscript on the table with a fingernail.

“This man… Who May… isn’t he Chinese?  No matter, but what exactly did he think he was writing?  Poetry? Well, this is nothing like poetry.  It may be written with words, but this is painting.  And,one might say, quite garish at that.  Its fantasy is visually too primitive.  Don’t you think?  That paranoid Catalonian would be delighted to crank out his sort of thing in reams.”

That was a bit of sarcasm directed at Salvidor Dalí.

These two stories – the poem’s origin and its deadly consequences – converge in yet a third plotline that brings us back to 1980’s Japan.  In it a small, independent poetry press organizes an exhibit built around a collection of newly discovered materials belonging to the early Surrealists.  Among the items is André Breton’s trunk.

Kawamata Chiaki writes in abrupt, rapid fire prose. Each paragraph contains between 1-3 sentences and he incorporates a lot of dialogue.  Personally, I like his style (though, I’ve seen reviews on GoodReads by readers who did not).  It keeps the action moving and increases the tension.  It also imbues the whole experience with an alien atmosphere.  Chiaki – and his translators – use this stylistic tick to their advantage.  Creating a nice contrast between the main narrative and the stream of conscious flow of the excerpts of Who May’s poetry which appear within the story.

It was all too obvious what he’d been doing.

That night he returned home well past two in the morning, and while having a nightcap he’d started reading the manuscripts signed my Who May.

The bottle of whiskey had been left uncapped.  It was now empty.  The glass was empty, too.  Later they discovered that he hadn’t drunk the whiskey.  It had evaporated in the heat.  That explained why the place reeked.

At first Sakakibara thought he had drunk too much and fallen asleep like that.  But that wasn’t it.  Kasadera wasn’t asleep at all.  He was lying there with both eyes wide open, staring into space.

His one hand was still clutching one of the three manuscript copies.

Death Sentences blends genres – incorporating sci-fi, literary thriller and noir.  The plot, while not totally unexpected, is fairly complex in its construction.  It’s the elements of complexity – the converging plotlines, the large cast of characters, the flashbacks and forwards, the defiance of genre – that make this novel so unusual.  Not to mention ridiculously hard to stop reading.

The University of Minnesota Press has put out a beautiful edition, taking the time to include a good amount of scholarly material.  The implication being that they consider Death Sentences a significant example of contemporary Japanese writing. I only wish more publishers would follow their example. There is a Foreword by Takayuki Tatsumi and an Afterword by Thomas Lamarre.  Both with notes. Both closely examine the novel itself, its author and his influences.  The care and attention that has gone into packaging this book (which, to their credit, seems to be typical of Minnesota) has me eagerly anticipating the next Chiaki novel to be published in English. I’ve been told that it deals with hikikomori culture – the Japanese phenomenon where young adults retreat from the world, never leaving their bedrooms.  Just imagine what a skilled storyteller like Kawamati Chiaki will do with a subject like that!

[Correction:  The hikikomori book is actually by another Japanese author, Saito Tamaki.  The title is Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End and is scheduled to be released Spring, 2013.  I suppose that’s what happens when you repeat things you thought you heard over loud music & drinks!]

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5455 0

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Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel)

The citizens of Japan are dealing with a tragic chain of events.  Please consider making a donation at RedCross.org.  Or, you can text REDCROSS to 90999 and automatically donate $10.

Evening Snow at Kanbara by Ando Hiroshige (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

I first encountered Japanese woodblock prints – specifically those done in the traditional Ukiyo-e method – on a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print The Great Wave Off of Kanagawa (part of the series 36 Views from Mount Fuji), has been reproduced on everything from mugs to t-shirts to calendars, and is probably the example most readers are familiar with.  But my favorite artist of Ukiyo-e is Hokusai’s contemporary Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).  Hiroshige’s compositions are the more dynamic.  His series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo pushes the limits of the medium and the two-dimensional plane.

A Ukiyo-e print requires the combined labor of several artisans.  The artist (for example: Hiroshige) creates the drawing.  But it is the carver who translates the image into wood.  He performs a kind of color separation, assigning each color (or pattern, or special effect) to an individual block. Each block contains only a small portion of the picture and a finished print can take anywhere from 10-25 carved blocks. The blocks are then turned over to the printer.

The printer applies ink to each block  and positions the paper on it, face down.  The image is transferred (by hand) by rubbing  the reverse side of the paper carefully with a special tool.  After it dries, the printer then lays the same sheet of paper onto the next block, working through all the color blocks – achieving perfect alignment by fitting the corner of the sheet into a right angle impression carved into the corner every block.

It’s a labor intensive process but the resulting prints are exquisite – allowing for incredible detail, while appearing deceptively simple on casual inspection. Reproductions in books rarely do these pieces justice.  It’s only in person that you discover the subtle shading, the mica embedded into the background 0f a night sky, or an embossing detail the printer used to create the white-on-white effect of snow falling onto piles of already drifted snow.  These pictures are painstakingly crafted, and meant to be enjoyed, one layer at a time.

What has all this to do with Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart?  The novel left me with the same sense of careful construction and of a shared Japanese aesthetic.

Murakami’s novel is narrated by a young man known only as “K.”,  who tells us the story of  his relationship with a strange and dishevelled girl named Sumire.   K. is Sumire’s best friend, her confidant and her support system as she struggles to become a writer.   A classic love triangle develops.  Our narrator is in love with Sumire.  Sumire, in turn, falls in love with a sophisticated older business woman named Miu.  Their affair causes Sumire to change her life, her appearance and her attitude.  She begins working for Miu and stops writing.  The two travel together, and while vacationing on a secluded Greek island Sumire mysteriously disappears.  Miu calls K. and requests that he come to the island to help search for the missing girl.  What he discovers when he gets there is both haunting and, at least for this reader, frustratingly unsatisfying:  two manuscripts left behind by Sumire – both of which create more questions than they provide answers.

The first part of Sputnik Sweetheart provides background on K.’s relationship with Sumire; the second part recounts Sumire’s love affair with Miu.  The third, and final part, deals with Sumire’s disappearance and our narrator’s search for answers.  (This breakdown of the book is mine, by the way, not the author’s.  The book is divided into 16 chapters).  Like the Ukiyo-e print, the story of K., Sumire & Miu develops in layers.  There is the three parts of the plot I described above, the two manuscripts, and then a third story of sacrifice that K. tells Sumire to encourage her to have faith in her talent as a writer.  Each of these plot devices is skillfully written, well-developed and interesting in and of itself.  But they never clicked into place to form a complete picture.  To further confuse matters, Murakami hints at (but never confirms) a science fiction twist at the end.  In some ways Sputnik Sweetheart reminded me of the novel and 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock , though Murakami is inarguably a better writer.

Haruki Murakami’s prose is everything I could hope for in a Japanese author.  Concise, lovely, evocative – incredibly detailed while appearing deceptively simple like a Ukiyo-e  print.  There is a powerful awareness of space, the setting of each scene defined by K.’s perspective.  The reader moves with him from room to room, whether in a cramped apartment at 2AM, a security guard’s dingy office, Sumire’s abandoned room on a Greek island or the inside of a ferris wheel car at night.  Sputnik Sweetheart is a series of small compositions – which is why it is so pleasing and where it disappoints.  If I were to go back I would not choose this novel as my introduction to Murakami’s writing.  Still, what I discovered in its pages has sparked a desire to read more.

Publisher:  Vintage International, New York (2001)
ISBN:  978 0 375 72605 7

And if you’re interested in learning more about Ukiyo-e:
Color Woodblock Printmaking: The Traditional Method of Ukiyo-e by Margaret M. Kanada
Publisher:  Shufonotomo Co., LTD., Japan (1995)
ISBN:  4 07 975316 0

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