Saturday, August 6, 2011

Recently Read Round-Up, July 2011

I think I'm going to try making the RRR a monthly thing. I get to highlight a number of interesting books, without the undertaking being too large that I end up putting it off indefinitely. I'm saying this entry is for "July" but in truth it also covers the last third or so of June. If I get good at these round-ups and more ambitious I won't lean so heavily on what I've already written on Goodreads, and make it more of a capsule review type thing. The headline still includes "literature" underneath Wednesday Afternoon Picnic, so I hope the expansion into non-Japanese literature reviews will still be welcome to you all.

Again, you can find me on Goodreads here, to follow in real-time (Oh my gosh so exciting!) what I'm reading.

Seventeen and J: Two Novels, Kenzaburo Oe
Translated by Luk Van Haute

2 out of 5 stars

Although Oe often uses these themes in his body of work, the two novels (said designation being extremely generous; they're novellas, really) gathered here are connected by the themes of politics and sexual perversion. And I'm sure at the time, when Oe was young and with not a lot of work to his name, these two pieces were quite extraordinary in a Ooh-look-at-this-literary-wunderkind-so-much-talent-for-his-age kind of way. But now that we know what Oe's work would become with time and practice, the novellas here are quite lackluster, frankly. Oe at his best uses extreme elements with a light touch, grace, nuance, what have you. Nuance is the last thing on display in these novellas.

Seventeen is about a masturbating (seriously, the narrator is constantly talking about and/or doing it), self-loathing teenager who becomes a member of the youth nationalist movement. It's a straw-man argument, basically, associating this totally hateful, pitiful character with conservative politics, and Oe's fiercely leftist tendencies are so obvious and hamfisted he got death threats and harassment from said right party for Seventeen and it's sequel (which, as noted in this book's introduction, Oe refuses to have translated out of legitimate fear from the response he got publishing it in the first place). J is almost two completely separate stories linked by one character, the first about J's wife shooting her art film with a bunch of their mutual friends/sexual conquests, and the next taking place sometime in the future and follows J as he helps induct a young ward in the ways of being a chikan, men who sexually harass women on the train.

Both deal with some heavy, twisted stuff but Oe doesn't know how to handle them really—it feels like he's writing purely for shock value, to illustrate/tie thematically to whatever he wants to complain about in the state of affairs of Japan. Oe is an unbridled idealist in these works, and they exist purely to pummel you into a conceptual submission. Seventeen and J are interesting from a historical perspective, seeing evolution in Oe's writing and the effects these incendiary works would have on the public, and then back to him, but they're not the best literature. Oe is capable of much better.

Mist, Miguel de Unamuno
Translated by Warner Fite
4 out of 5 stars

The original nivolla (you'll understand this term if you read the book). This book was recommended to me by a translator/student friend who workshopped a translation she did of Unamuno. I loved the short story she translated, and she suggested I read this novel for more.

Mist has a whisper-thin plot—man falls in love with a woman who's in love with someone else sort of deal. But plot isn't really quite the point of the novel.  It's a thoroughly post-modern/meta-fictional book, though it came out well before either of those terms existed. I don't really want to spoil the surprises in store, but I will be frank, you might find it kind of boring in the beginning (at least I did). The whole thing starts to unravel, so to speak, in the second half, but if you like meta-fictional games in your books, read Mist, one of the earliest. I might have to reread it, in case there are things to catch in the beginning that I couldn't appreciate not knowing the end.

The Art of Fiction, John Gardner

4 out of 5 stars

I'll confess: I have literary aspirations besides those of translating. I wouldn't say I'm any good, but I enjoy it doing it, and getting feedback and seeing how I can improve, and I certainly love the idea of being a novelist... The goal for me now is to start practicing regularly now that I'm not taking classes in the subject. We'll see if I ever get anywhere with it.

So I picked up this of the many guides, because one, John Gardner, and two, my own creative writing teacher mentioned in passing as one of the good ones.

Gardner is hilariously judgmental in this book, and has almost impossibly high/old-fashioned standards of literature, but the information and lessons here are undeniably useful and easy to grasp. I wouldn't agree with everything Gardner says about the art of writing literary fiction (though who am I to argue against him) but his thoughts are so well laid out that reading this book would be helpful for anyone, if only to figure out where s/he stands. At the very least an interesting read if you're into this kind of thing.

After Dark, Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin

3 out of 5 stars (maybe 2.5 out of 5)

This is technically a reread, since I read After Dark immediately after it came out the first time. 

You know what? After Dark is not that great. I feel like everyone was on a Kafka on the Shore high when After Dark came out in America, because the reviews are generally pretty positive. It's definitely my least favorite Murakami novel now, which is funny because the previous loser, South of the Border, West of the Sun got way better on my second read-through last summer. 

Sure, After Dark has got some great atmosphere;  it's real nice and tense, and it's got some interesting characters. The problem is that we don't "know" them like we know characters from other works, and After Dark is not as clearly "about" something as his other works. And Murakami explores duality and "this side/other side" themes more clearly and eloquently, I think, in other works, like Sputnik Sweetheart. I don't know. On the whole I came away a little disappointed. Not bad, per se, but I feel now like it's a little overrated. 

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

 4 out of 5 stars 

I fell hard for this book. I wanted to give it 5 stars. Or if Goodreads did half stars, 4.5. It was by far the most fun I've had reading in a long time (I fell hard for Lev Grossman's The Magicians in a similar way).

I suppose it's because I don't read a lot of genre fiction anymore, and while this definitely has a sci-fi bent, it is still very literary. So the sci-fi elements made for a really good novel on a plot-level, but the thematic and emotional resonance made it a story that stuck with me in a way that only good to great literature does. 

Plot-wise, a basic synopsis would be that the narrator is a sort of time-travel machine repairman, adrift and lonely, the only child of a time-travel obsessed father and a put-upon mother. Eventually he sees his future self and accidentally/impusively kills him, causing himself to be stuck in a time loop.

 The novel reminded me of a number of different things. It reminded me of Murakami in a couple different ways, partially because of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World's sci-fi bent, but also Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973's fragmented style and depressed, adrift loner first person narrator. And it also reminded me of A Wild Sheep Chase in that it starts off sort of not about anything but then all of a sudden, much later than you might expect it to, gets very plot-heavy. But it also reminded me of George Saunders, particularly in his novella Pastoralia, in that it deals with a absurd, weird, almost fantastical job that's presented as if it were the most banal thing in the world. A very potent combination, and Yu has some hilarious one liners, and also some of the most emotionally wrenching passages too. 

The only drawback is that time travel stories are basically impossible to be fully satisfying. They almost always end in some sort of weird way, whether totally confusing or illogical or by some deux ex machina, which is sort of a necessity, because otherwise, well, the whole infinite loop thing. But this book was SO much fun, that I would recommend this book to just about anybody. I am very much looking forward to reading more of Yu's work.

The Private Lives of Trees, Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
4 out of 5 stars 

This was another book that I was kind of surprised how blown away by how good it was. It's quietly powerful, especially given that it is so short—only 90 odd pages. 

It starts off with Julian telling a bedtime story to Daniella, the daughter of his wife Veronica, about trees who basically just sort of chat with other. But the narrative digresses to Julian's romantic past, how he met Veronica, Daniella's potential future life, etc. The narrator states clearly early on that the novel will end when Veronica comes home, but as the novella goes on, it becomes increasingly unclear whether she will come back at all. 

I can't help but make another Murakami comparison; in this case, it reminds me of the short story "Honey Pie" from after the quake. The similarities are pretty intriguing, though in all likelihood completely coincidental. They both follow failed/struggling writers (Julian wants to write but seems to have writer's block of some kind; Junpei can only write short stories but not a novel; also I just noticed their names start with J) and both stories start with the telling of a bedtime story about anthropomorphized non-humans (bears in "Honey Pie," trees here) to a girl that is not biologically theirs. They also, at least to some extent, have to deal with the hardships of new, makeshift families. Tonally they are quite different; "Honey Pie" overall is a happy story, with a touch of melancholy, Trees has sort of the opposite proportions. Trees is incredibly moving however, made all the better that it's a story that you can finish in one sitting, while at the same time deeper and more satisfying than just a short story. I highly recommend it, and I super want to read Zambra's Bonsai now too. 

And that's what I've read this past July (and some of June). I also started David Foster Wallace's Girl With Curious Hair, though I have many more stories to read, and am halfway through Kevin Brockmeier's latest novel The Illumination. Look forward to reviews of these in roughly a month's time.

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