Paul Celan: Paul Celan: Selected Poems
Paul Celan is relentless in the demands he makes upon his readers, just as life--in the form of the Nazis--was relentless in its treatment of him and those he loved. Even in Michael Hamburger's skillfully translated Paul Celan: Selected Poems (Hamburger's introduction, in which he discusses some of the many difficulties of translating a poet like Celan, is fascinating) much of Celan's work will be opaque to all but a few readers--and maybe to all readers. Still, so powerful are Celan's words, so searing the flashes of meaning that emerge, that we continue to want to live with these poems, and that is what it will take to extract all that we never doubt is there.
Haruki Murakami: The Strange Library
"The Strange Library" is a short story, not a novel. So why, one might wonder, has it been published as a single volume. The answer would be that, of course, short stories are designed to stand alone, and that the force of even prime examples of the form can be diluted when tossed into the mix of a collected or a selected, by the many other tales surrounding them. That alone would be enough to justify publishing "The Strange Library" as a stand-alone, but add to that Chip Kidd's design for the volume--the pictures are as crucial as the text--and it is clear that The Strange Library has assumed an appropriate form. Although it's tiny compared to the behemoths Haruki Murakami has released in recent years, even those who have relished every page of those behemoths won't be disappointed. All the elements that one loves in Murakami--up to and including a sheep man--are here, and the economy with which they are deployed makes the tale dissatisfying in only one way. One doesn't want it to end--even as one is entirely satisfied with the ending Murakami gives it. It's only fair to warn book lovers, particularly the kind given to carrying "I'm a Reader!" bags, that Murakami's library is not the warm and fuzzy place for which they might have hoped. Rather, darkness runs through it, and mystery, and wonder. It is, in its few pages, as satisfying is Murakami's more substantial works.
Ross Macdonald: The Wycherly Woman (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," especially when uncle, who was having an affair with mum, kills mum, and then you, the daughter, are forced to gain weight and die your hair blonde, so you can masquerade as mum, and the masquerade is so convincing that it almost convinces your now remorseful uncle--he throws his arms around you--that your mum survived his attempt to kill her. Just another week in Ross Macdonald's grim California.
Rafael Reyes-Ruiz: The Ruins: A Novel
We've had more than our share of novels about foreigners adrift in Japan, but the foreigners, at least in books that make it into English, are almost always Americans or Europeans, and not just any Americans or Europeans. Rather they're North Americans or Europeans from, roughly speaking, Paris or points North. One reason that Rafael Reyes-Ruiz's The Ruins is a pleasure to read is that the protagonist is not one of those. Rather, he is a South American with roots extending to Portugal. The book is largely about this Japan based historian coming to terms both with his past--a woman he loved and lost and who decades later he believes he sees again, though, impossibly, she hasn't aged--and also with the colonial past of Portugal. India and Timor come into it, and also slavery, and its modern incarnation, human trafficking, and the sex trade in Tokyo. Although the book does seem, in the end, like a tangle of loose threads--none of the above, or the sub-plot on academic politics are ever quite resolved--that's not really a problem. We enjoy watching our somewhat befuddled scholar make his way through Tokyo, through his past, and into the larger past of which his life is piece.
Jean Daive: Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan (Serie D'ecriture)
This is not a review of the Stephen King blockbuster, but rather of a poetic mediation by the French poet Jean Daive on his relationship, spanning several decades, with Paul Celan. A lot of Daive's time with Celan was spent walking the streets of Paris and talking or, as seems often to have been the case, walking the streets of Paris and not talking. Daive, interspersing fragments of his life apart from Celan into his account of his encounters with Celan has arrived at the perfect form with which to memorialize one of the essential poets of the last century, a poet who remains essential now.
Peter Dickinson: Tefuga
Tefuga is by Peter Dickinson, a novelist who is both prolific and difficult to pigeonhole. Thus he has never received as much attention as he deserves. He is, after all, the author of science fiction, mysteries, and children's books in addition to his "serious novels." An artist so promiscuous cannot be taken seriously. Tefuga, however, is evidence that he should be. It is set in Africa—Dickinson was born in Zambia to a father in the colonial service—and though it was published nearly thirty years ago, this tale of a woman and her husband in colonial Nigeria still sparkles with perceptiveness about colonialism, and its evil twin, the patriarchal world that delimited "a woman's place." Dickson's version is brilliantly constructed. As we learn the story through the diaries of the woman at its center, and also through the film being made about her life years after the events by her son, there is a sense of mirrors in mirrors: the reflections are the same as "reality," but not quite. Perhaps Dickinson's neatest trick is making his colonial couple sympathetic without saddling them with anachronistic attitudes about the role of the British in Africa, or about the Africans over whom the British ruled. Some of their attitudes are naive, and some downright repugnant, but they all seem accurate to the milieu.
Ross Macdonald: The Galton Case (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
This could be one of the best in the Lew Archer series. It's the story of an impostor who is not an impostor, of a past that will not remained repressed. Freud, as always, is the presiding deity.
Naoyuki Ii: The Shadow of a Blue Cat (Japanese Literature Series)
The most surprising thing about this pleasant, but very conventional, novel is that Dalkey Archive--known for their adventurous list--chose to publish it. It examines the life of a middle-aged man leading the not terribly exciting life that most middle-aged men live (and as I am one myself, I will say it is accurate). To bring the mundane life into focus, Ii surrounds his protagonist with an uncle who is a bit of a Bohemian, and with a daughter who's begun to move with a fast crowd and ends up pregnant, briefly married, and divorced. There's the odd reference to writers like Oe and Sade, marijuana, and '70s radicalism, but none of these are developed in any depth. There are also philosophical musings about love--both eros and agape--and our responsibilities as members of society, but all of this seems tacked on. It is, instead, the skillful realism of the depiction of the late '90s in Japan that keeps one turning pages.
Gregory Dunne: Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman
Cid Corman, Gregory Dunne's excellent Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman makes clear, valued poetry in part for the way it brings people together. Thus Dunne's strategy, to write about Corman and his work, but also about people, and not least himself and how we was affected by the man and the work, is wise. Dunne's analysis of Corman's work is strong, but is made stronger by the human element around it, the same element that helped make Corman's work the wonder that it is.
Ross Macdonald: The Doomsters (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
As one continues through Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer books one stumbles across hints about the events in Archer's life that have made him who he is. He has been, we learn, an abused child, a juvenile delinquent and young hood running the streets of Long Beach, California, a cop, and a husband. He is none of these things any more, and in this book more than any of its predecessors, he is morose about some of the turns his life has taken. He is coming to understand, as he roots through the rot that characterizes a California town called, with no small irony, Purisima, that a black-and-white good-and-evil view of the world is insufficient, and also with the notion that he may be neither as good or bad a man as he feared. Freud, as always, is the presiding genius in Macdonald's novels, but existentialism seems to have entered the picture as well.
David Sedaris: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls; Essays, Etc.
I recently discovered David Sedaris’ humorous, mostly personal, well observed, lovingly crafted essays in the online press and enjoyed them greatly. Decided to buy a book of them, but in the bookstore there were a dozen titles. In the end I picked the most recent, and, well, enjoyed it greatly. I appreciated his courage to push the envelope with sometimes controversial material (e.g., his China travel impressions). The book also showcases his versatility in taking on other voices. There’s even some poetry to finish up with. One verse: “Most every ev’ning Goldilocks/snacks from Kitty’s litter box./Then on command she gives her missus/lots of little doggy kisses.” (****)
Anthony Holden: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
Every since high school, I’ve found poetry difficult so I bought this collection to see if I could learn to appreciate it better via the tear ducts. The format is simple: a hundred famous people, many poets themselves, each briefly introduce a poem that moves them. Though often baffled, and never overcome, I enjoyed the ride. But for me, it’s country music that most readily mists the eyes. Tim McGraw’s “You Get Used to Somebody” and “Nashville Without You,” for example, never fail. (***)
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
"A Time of Gifts"/"Between the Woods and Water"/"The Broken Road" The trilogy describing a youthful walk across Europe in the 1930s is absorbing, fascinating and full of beauty. I thoroughly enjoyed every step of the way. (****)
Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking
A thoughtful compendium of ideas about walking that includes abstract ideas like freedom, historical accounts like pilgrimage, and biographies of philosophers and writers for whom walking was important in their lives. It’s a book both grave and wild, offering wisdom in measure to the effort you put into reading it. (***)
Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual
Alain de Botton makes a (to me) convincing case that there are few categories of news that couldn’t be reported in a more useful way. And that realization was enough to wean me off my addiction to internet news sites. Now, instead of multiple daily visits seeking novelty and diversion, I go to the Guardian and Japan Today sites once for just a few minutes each. And I’ve canceled my Guardian Weekly subscription. So this book has been life changing, and reading it is the beginning of an, I believe, more healthy relationship with news media. (*****)