Donald C. Wood: And if Strangers Come to Supper
If, like Donald C. Wood, author of And if Strangers Come to Supper (and like the author of this review) you've lived in Japan for a long time one reason you've done so is that you find a lot of things about the place fascinating. Most of us learn early, though, that as inexplicable as this may be, not everyone finds Japan as fascinating as we do. This presents a problem for Japan obsessed novelists: how can they write about Japan without writing about Japan? Wood's solution is to write about an American whose Japanese-American wife has recently died leaving him with a newborn baby, and his increasing involvement--due largely to his curiosity about a gap in his wife's diary--with her family and their business, a Japanese restaurant in Texas. The novel is compelling enough, especially in the early pages before the protagonist reconnects with his wife's family--thus no need for info-dumps--but later, when he is living and working with them the constant explanatory digressions slow things down:
"What's that," I asked.
"It's a mixture of tonkatsu, onion, and egg, flavored mainly with soy sauce and sugar . . . .
and so on.
One does keep turning the pages, though, to learn the departed wife's secret, skipping over, if one is familiar with Japan, the guide book stuff. One enjoys, too, the subtle use Wood makes of the Japanese folktale, "The Crane Wife."
Christopher Isherwood: The World in the Evening
First published in the 1950s, Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening is a novel that seems many years ahead of its time in its treatment of sex, both homo- and hetero-. It follows the path of a rentier named Stephen Monk through his sexual and social entanglements moving from his present to his past and back again. The novel seems, for its time, particularly enlightened because Monk's forays into same-sex entanglements and also his heterosexual adventures, are neither condemned nor celebrated. Likewise, his sexuality--either kind--is never thought to be definitive. Rather, the sex he has is just something he does. The focus is more on how kind or unkind, manipulative or honest with himself and his partners, Monk is, and what is celebrated at the end is not that Monk has come out (he hasn't, really. Isherwood is never that crude), but that Monk has, finally, attained some sort of emotional maturity. That's right, folks. A novel from the '50s about a sexually ambiguous man who is neither destroyed by society or an icon of liberation. Who would have thunk it?
William T Vollmann: The Rainbow Stories (Contemporary American Fiction)
William Vollmann's imagination is protean, his eye unerring, and he's able to convey what he imagines and sees in prose that frequently astounds. This is true throughout Rainbow Stories (1989), his second book. I have only dipped into his other work, but I feel certain that my hyperbolic and deserved praise is true of all of it, and yet somehow I can't quite warm to him. Sucked into the stories he tells--of Tenderloin skinheads, prostitutes, and drunks, but also of ancient Babylonians and others--I'm then spit back out; astounded by his verbal prowess, but also eager to get to the end of the story, I find myself, finally, ambivalent. I'm sure that's my problem, not Vollmann's. I will read more . . . but not yet.
Richard Askwith: Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession
From my vantage point as a back-of-the-pack duffer I keep an eye on what's happening in the world of trail running, and in the course of doing so I hear the odd word about an English variant called fell running, but only the odd word, because it seems that not too many of the best known European and American runners take part in it. Richard Askwith's account, in which he mixes his own attempts at finishing The Bob Graham Round--one must traverse forty-two Lake District peaks in twenty-four hours--with a history of the sport, has brought me up to speed. Trail running and mountain running are tough wherever one does them, but Askwith has just about convinced me that fell running and fell runners take it to a new level. I hope some of the best American and European runners will try themselves on some of the most challenging British rounds.
Iain M. Banks: Use of Weapons (Culture)
This meditation on the use of weapons, and how weapons are sometimes people, and how those people, those weapons, sometimes attack the mind as much as the body is formally the most complex of the three Culture novels I have read; so intricate and intriguing is the form that one immediately wants to read it again (a quick scan of the on-line commentary turns up several "I've just finished my sixth reading of . . . " posts). It is a detailed character study told in alternating chapters, one stream moving forward in time and one moving backward, of a man, a soldier, a weapon, who we find out, by the end of the novel, is not at all the man we think he is. Given the complexity of human beings the intricacy with which Banks presents this character is appropriate and at times astounding.
Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games (Culture)
If Borges can be seen as a metaphysicist, then Iain. M. Banks, at least in The Player of Games, might be seen as an applied metaphysician. He takes one of Borges's conceits--consciously or unconsciously (I suspect the former)--a society that is governed by the rules of a game, and puts material meat on the bones of the idea.
A game player from the advanced semi-anarchist society called The Culture--a society in which games are only games--is called upon to go to a more primitive imperialistic culture that is governed by a game called Azad, and engage in the game that determines pretty much every aspect of that society, most spectacularly who will be Emperor. The working out of this metaphysical conceit--the game is the society is the world--is a satisfying blend of action and idea.
Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (Culture)
Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas is usually identified as a space opera, a play on the term soap opera, that suggests the dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, action that characterizes these kinds of books. If that's all Banks were offering us it would not be of much interest, at least to me. What saves it from action movie-style dullness is Banks's world-building, or more accurately, universe building. The book is the first of a series about "The Culture," a future society dispersed over the universe that is sort of Scandinavia on steroids, a society where all material needs (and wants) are met, where people are free to devote themselves to their pleasures, and where decision-making is done on a purely rational basis by sentient machines with much more brain power than mere human beings will ever have. The problem is, there is one desire the culture is unable to meet: the need human beings have not to feel useless. To address this the Culture practices what some of its members call "secular evangelistm": interfering in the histories of other cultures they encounter to bring them, willingly or not, around to the Culture's way of seeing and doing things. Unsurprisingly, this leads to war--though the Culture is ostensibly devoted to peace and opposed to the unreason that is war. This book is devoted to the war between the Culture and the Idirans, "a religiously inspired society determined to extend its influence over every technologically inferior civilization in its path regardless of either the initial toll of conquest or the subsequent attrition of occupation." And the war sets up the space opera in which the protagonist is actually an enemy of the culture with whom Banks skillfully makes us sympathize and who follows a winding path through a variety of worlds and adventures, worlds and adventures that are in every way satisfying.
Thomas R. H. Havens: Marathon Japan: Distance Racing and Civic Culture
This book is only for the running-obsessed. The eyes of all others will surely glaze over when turning the pages and (sometimes repetitious) pages of detailed accounts of Japanese athletes' achievements in various domestic and international events over the years—not only marathons, but also, in Japan, ekiden. Eyes may pop open briefly here and there if, for example, one hadn't realized that prior to the advent of the Africans in the 1990s the Japanese had been a real force in marathon running (between 1961 and 1970 fifty-two of the 100 fastest marathon times were by Japanese) or if one hadn't noticed that running is extraordinarily popular among the Japanese masses (302,000 runners, including me, applied for an entry in the Tokyo Marathon in 2014).
Although there are occasional stabs at analysis and interpretation, one leaves the book feeling like it is a job half done. Havens has the data—boy does he! Now he, or another scholar, needs to go to work on figuring out what it all means.
Assata Shakur: Assata: An Autobiography
Assata Shakur is an African American revolutionary currently living in exile in Cuba after escaping from an American prison. Her name's been in the news a bit lately because one of the arguments against the USA normalizing relations with Cuba is that they harbor terrorists, and when the the American right make this argument, Assata Shakur is usually the terrorist they are talking about.
It's hard to know if she is guilty of the crime for which she was being held at the time of her escape, the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper. She is a self-identified revolutionary and she does not (or did not at the time of writing her autobiography, anyway) disavow violence in service to the struggle to better the condition of oppressed people. At the same time, these were the bad old days of Cointelpro, the massive and ruthless FBI operation against a variety of domestic political groups including the largely successful infiltration and harassment of the Black Panthers (Assata had been a member). As a part of this program, Assata was charged with a number of crimes on the East Coast simply because they were committed by a black woman who might, more or less plausibly, have been her. She was tried for more than one robbery, murder, and kidnapping for which she was acquitted. Thus it is not hard to believe that her conviction for murder in the killing of the New Jersey trooper was tainted in a number of ways.
The autobiography doesn't quite tell, and for obvious reasons there are no details of her escape (though several people were arrested and charged for taking part in it).
Whether one agrees or not with the actions that Shakur (may have) committed or abetted it is hard to disagree with most of her analysis of the situation of black people in the USA and America's history of racism. It is sad to note that it seems as accurate today as ever--even with a black president.
The book is a gripping read. The slang with which Assata peppers her prose and the loose rhythms with which she writes enliven the book, as does the structure: beginning the night of her arrest for the trooper's murder, and then bouncing between that night and its aftermath and her earlier life where we learn how she turned into the disciplined revolutionary she became.
Avram Davidson: Peregrine Secundus
A few years ago I read Davidson's Peregrine Primus, the first in this series, and though I'm a great Davidson fan I was not overly impressed. Perhaps, though I'd picked the two books up in the same used bookstore haul, that's why I didn't rush to pick up Secundus. I finally got around to Secundus and found it to be altogether more delightful than its predecessor, not only witty and learned in the way one expects from Davidson, but also illuminating about life in the Dark Ages, especially in the far-flung outposts of what had been the Roman Empire. The good news is, you could easily read and enjoy Secundus without having read Primus.