Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Recently Read Round-up

Also known as "books that made me depressed in the last few weeks round-up", 'cause all three of these mo-fos were downers.

  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro 
Although I've seen this book on shelves before, I decided to read this book a few months ago because it was on AV Club's list of best books in the last decade and because it sounded right up my alley (in it's vague mysterious lightly sci-fi trappings plot, not because the dude has a Japanese name. He's Japanese born but grew up in England, and this book takes place in England, feels very English, and is very much written in English. Unbelievably to some, I do have interests outside of Japan.) I finally got around to it only recently even though I've had a copy since Christmas.

I actually don't want to talk about the plot (at all), because what I liked most about the novel is Ishiguro's maddeningly sparse and infrequent dolling out of clues about the book, even though from the beginning you have a sense that everything about the world this book inhabits is somehow different without any explicit signs to that effect, but you hardly get a clue as to what it is until well past the halfway point, and you don't really understand what it's all about until just about the very end. The novel is incredibly tragic, which is about as spoiler-y as I'm going to get (and with a title like Never Let Me Go, I mean, c'mon, you're just asking for a tragedy here). It's not a terribly long book, and I get so wrapped up in it I read the last third or so in one breathless sitting. 

Also, do not go to the Wikipedia page to learn about this book. You read like the first sentence of the plot description and the whole book is basically ruined. So don't do it. However, do read the novel. It was subtle and beautiful and heartbreaking and basically all-around awesome.

  • Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa
I won't talk about this book too much here, because I'm writing a long, formal review for the blog Three Percent (which of course I'll dutifully let you know when it's up, as I have with other reviews I've written). It's written by the same author as the elegant and beautiful (though slightly bittersweet) The Housekeeper and the Professor, but it could not be any more different in plot and tone. I hear Ogawa's The Diving Pool has some pretty bleak stuff too, but I haven't read that yet. This book doesn't come out for another month or so, so don't go looking for it yet! (Ah, the perks of semi-professional book reviewin'!)

Hotel Iris is about a 17 year-old girl who works at her family's seaside hotel, domineered by her cold mother and the ten-year-old memories of a dead, alcoholic father (was that an awkward sentence? Her dad died ten years ago and he was pretty much a dead-beat). She gets involved with a late-middle-aged translator who also has a history of loss in his personal life, who she meets when he gets kicked out late one night of her hotel with a prostitute. Then it gets darker and really twisted. I haven't been this emotionally sickened by a book since Ryu Murakami's Piercing (although that novel made me feel much, much worse in comparison to this one. *shudder*).

The book is really short, which makes you expect some tight, honed-in writing. However, I think the novel, frankly, is underdeveloped. I hardly got a sense of the characters besides these big, awful events in their lives and I felt a lot of their motivations/feelings were underdeveloped. The book is about love (I guess, in it's twisted way) and maybe love is indescribable and unknowable, but in this case that feels more like an excuse than a reason for the unclear writing. (Oo, nice. I'm gonna be using that line somehow).

  • The Magicians, Lev Grossman

This book was on AV Club's best books of 2009, and I reserved a copy of it at the library on a whim. I think I was 43 on the queue (people be reading this book!), so I didn't get it until about a week ago. I started reading it two days ago. It's 400 pages. I read the last 250 or so pages in one sitting from about 8am this morning until about 1pm with only a break to drive home from the train station and eat lunch. I absolutely could not put down this book. It was awesome.

A lazy description I've seen online is that it's an "adult Harry Potter", which, admittedly, for three words is not altogether inaccurate. It's basically about a teenager in Brooklyn who hates real life and SHOCK discovers that magic is REAL like in his favorite books and is whisked away to learn magic at a secret university. But oh my goodness it is so much more than that.

There are many things that make this book work so well, and raise it so much further above a fantasy book and into the realm of "literature". For one, it exists in our world, that already has Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, which allows Grossman to both utilize these references in his writing and acknowledge them both in the frame of the novel and within the novel itself. For two, the characters are deeply flawed people. They're real. They're immature teens and twenty-somethings who want nothing more than to get drunk, have sex, and dick around with their magic powers, (as we all would if we had those kinds of powers). The main character, although sympathetic, is kind of a huge dick too. He fucks up all the time (and with magic involved, these fuck-ups are huge), and he has to learn to pay the consequences (or not, and make everything worse). For three, once the plot really gets going in the second half, it leads to an amazing climax/sudden twist. For all the light-hearted fantasy fun on the surface, this book has a dark, dark underbelly with more than its share of tragedy.

The only flaws to the novel are some pacing issues (the book goes through all four years of his time at magic university and then some). But the novel is a honest look at what it really would be like if magic existed, consequences and all, as well as an honest look at the real-world stuff, like depression, the messiness of love and relationships, and learning to grow the hell up. The novel might not capture you if you didn't grow up reading/loving things like Harry Potter and the Narnia books (like I did), but I definitely think it's worth reading because it is so very real, even in it's unreality.


  1. I`ve seen a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro`s books here, but I hadn`t thought to read one really until your review of this book. Now it kind of feels like I MUST read it.

    Right now I`m reading Box Man by Abe... There are some weird moments, but I`d definitely recommend it. Also, I`ve been reading Koe no Ami by Shinichi Hoshi. Have you heard of him? Reading it in Japanese it`s hard for me to tell, but I`m not sure I`d like his book if it was written in English. The characters don`t seem developed as far as I`ve read... I don`t know if I would really recommend him to you,but he was a force in Japanese sci fi, if you`re interested!

  2. I read 'Never Let Me Go' quite a while ago,must say i didn't enjoy as much as some of his previous books.I'm looking forward to reading 'Hotel Iris',i read The Diving Pool and really liked it.I've seen the film of 'The Housekeeper and the Professor',but not read the book.I'd like to read some Shinichi Hoshi too!..

  3. Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" is supposed to be his other "great" book; it won the Man Booker prize back in the late 80s, so that might be another good place to start if you can't find Never Let Me Go.

    I read a little bit of the Box Man when I was at the library once last summer! I was getting into it but I think I had other books to read first and then I didn't get around to it. Kobo Abe is weird, man! And what's ironic/coincidental is that my old high school is putting on Abe's play "Tomodachi" of all things this spring. Won't be able to see it though...

    I don't know Shinichi Hoshi, but I'll look into him. Another interesting sci-fi writer is Yasutaka Tsutsui. He's pretty funny too. Satirical as well.

    Are you reading all of these in Japanese? Either way I'm so jealous! The ONE class I wanted to take in Japan was a literature class and they don't offer one where I'm going. Maybe I can ask/bully/sneak into the nihonjin class but I'd probably be really over my head. Still I feel like I'm missing out.

    I heard there was a film version of Housekeeper, I guess that book took Japan by storm too. Was it any good? Speaking of contemporary film/book crossovers, I'm starting to read "Shinigami no seido" which has a cool looking film version too...

  4. Man, I really want to get a hold of that Magician's book... Perhaps we could do a swap at the Liquid Room?

  5. If I could I would, but my copy belongs to the public library... otherwise I would've been glad to. Amazon japan has a used copy for 900 yen including tax though; not such a bad price, certainly better than paying full price for a 25$ hardcover at least...

  6. aha "reserved a copy at the library on a whim"... closer reading saves time in making redundant requests. Looks like a damn good book though.

  7. The film of Housekeeper was okay,maybe i should read the novel,theres a film of another of Ogawa's books called 'L'annulaire' (Wedding Finger- i think)which i'd like to see,i've not seen Accuracy of Death (Sweet Rain),i'm surprised Kotaro Isaka hasn't been translated yet,I think there's a film version of Taichi Yamada's book 'Strangers' on the way too....

  8. BEYOND excited about Yoko Ogawa's Hotel Iris--I accidentally bought a french version of her book...and have been staring at it, forlorn (I don't read French). I had no idea that it had been translated and recently published in the US! Thank you.