Friday, October 7, 2011

Recently Read Round-Up, August & September 2011

We're going to take a quick break from our bestsellers coverage and look at what I've been reading. I was going to do this every month, but as it turns out, I only read one book in August. Oops. But I bounced back in September, and here we are now. And I read some great books, you guys. (There is a Japanese book in this selection too, for what it's worth.)

The Illumination
by Kevin Brockmeier
4 out of 5 stars

I'm a big Kevin Brockmeier fan. I started off reading his short stories for my creative writing class (which he visited; he was a very nice, very thoughtful, very fun to talk to guy), then read The Brief History of the Dead, then read more of his short stories, and then I got here, to his newest, which was just published in February.

I like Brockmeier's work because of the way it just straddles the line between literary fiction and genre or speculative fiction. Like Murakami, he introduces fantastic or un-realistic elements to otherwise straightforward stories, and part of the fun of exploring their narrative worlds is how these little "weird" elements affect an otherwise realistic world. The difference between Brockmeier and Murakami is their sense of "touch." If Murakami's writing style is "cool" like jazz, then Brockmeier's is delicate, like a whisper (or if we have to stick to musical metaphors, an artist like Eliot Smith or Sufjan Stevens).

The premise of The Illumination is that one day, bodily pain is manifested as light. But the focus of the story isn't really that fact. It's more of a catalyst to how their characters start to perceive themselves and those around them (and each others' physical and emotional pain). It's quite beautiful, even though it might sound a little twee or, to dust off an old slangy chestnut, "emo." It's also less of a novel than a collage of character studies, but definitely worth a read, I think.

by George Saunders
4 out of 5 stars

I read the title novella for a class, and had been meaning to going back and reading the rest of the short stories in this collection. Totally worth it. If you have any passing interest in contemporary American writers, you have to be reading Saunders. Just a hilarious, heart-wrenching, brilliant satirist and yarn-spinner. "Pastoralia," "Winky," "Sea Oak," "The Barber's Unhappiness" are the highlights that come to mind.

Where Europe Begins
by Yoko Tawada
4 out of 5 stars

This is the second collection of Tawada's that I've read. I read The Bridegroom was a Dog a while back, liked the second story a lot, the title story some, and I honestly can't remember the third story now. I've had this on my shelf for a long time but it hasn't been a priority to read. Then one day, when I didn't have any books on hand that I wanted to read, I saw it and pulled it out.

And I forgot who freakin' weird Tawada is.

In a good way, mind you. These are some great surrealist tales. As I wrote in my Goodreads review, "A collection of awesomely fucked up fever dreams and fairy tales". The best part of Tawada's surrealism is that it really can be either a nightmare of something extremely beautiful, and she often can switch between the two in the blink of an eye. And what's even more amazing is that this collection is made up of stories that were originally written in Japanese and German. She has mastery of two languages y'all! If I were to be a little nitpicky I thought the translations from German were slightly better than the ones from Japanese, but maybe her style is just slightly different when she writes in the different languages (though it's tricky to say since we're dealing with two different translators as well). Still, definitely a big recommendation if you're looking for something strange. 

by Alejandro Zambra
5 out of 5 stars

You guys, I've fallen hard for this Zambra fellow. Of course, now I've read the only two things he's published so far since he's so young, and now I have to wait for more. Very saddening.

I can't emphasize how much I've loved reading this and The Private Lives of Trees. My one caveat I guess is that Zambra is more of a stylist than a plot-ist. This novella especially has the barest of bare plots (and one of the most cliched, the break-up story) but it was just so good to read. The translation is gorgeous (I'm sure the original Spanish is too). Zambra is just a great writer, in that he knows how to select, arrange, use words. Beautiful, beautiful. There's not much else I can add. This was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and I'm surprised it didn't win. Give it a shot. It might not be your thing, but if it is, I think you're not just going to enjoy it—you're going to love it. If you need a more in-depth review, I would check out this one at the Quarterly Conversation.

The Sleepwalker
by Margarita Karapanou

2.5 out of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. I remember reading about it before actually reading it, and thought it sounded great. The first chapter is great. The ending approaches great. But the middle is just...ugh. I hate to be so harsh on it, because I feel like my problem was a matter of unmatched expectations, not the book itself.

The book starts by talking about God and how frustrated he is with the world he created as a young Creator. So to fix the world, he vomits up a new messiah.

What a great premise! Too bad it's largely forgotten after that for most of the novel. Instead, the book becomes sexually ambiguous hipster murder mystery time, and that may sound kind of awesome, but it is most assuredly not. One chapter about the character Alfredo is a bright spot, and then nothing interesting happens until a trash plague cum heat wave threatens the island the novel it takes place on to extinction. 

The problem, I found, is that the novel is so heavy with symbolism (all the characters are different nationalities, making the whole island a kind of Babel, for instance) that it forgets about having interesting, three-dimensional characters. Basically, they're all artists, but they all can't or won't make art, so instead they all get drunk, have sex with each other, occasionally rape children and get murdered. I could only distinguish three characters to you right now if you asked, and that's because one of them is the murderer, one of them rapes a child, and one of them has writer's block. Those are literally the only distinguishing characteristics about them. If you could somehow read only the 20% of the novel that is good, I would recommend it, but there's so much I didn't enjoy that I can't really recommend this book.

And that's what I've read in the last two months. Look forward to part three of the bestseller analysis soon.