Lea O'Harra: Imperfect Strangers: An Inspector Inoue mystery
Lea O'Hara's Imperfect Strangers is set in Japan, and as such must necessarily tell us about the country. She mostly does a good job of that, avoiding particularly tedious info dumps and by teaching us things about Japan that are actually, you know, true. The puzzle she creates--who murdered the head of a small Christian university in Kyushu--is fun enough to try and unravel, though she does take her time about introducing one or two characters who are keys to figuring things out. All in all a diverting read by this first-time mystery author.
David Lagercrantz: The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series
David Lagercrantz does a good job of continuing Steig Larsson's Millenium Series. The politics underlying the novels remain the same, and the characters don't do or say anything that seems at odds with the characters as Larsson depicted them. As riveting as Larsson's narratives could be he was not always a graceful writer, and the info dumps sometimes clunked down rather heavily. Lagercrantz--intentionally?--follows in the master's footsteps, both in creating a gripping narrative, but also in the heavy clunks.
Elizabeth Jane Howard: All Change (Cazalet Chronicles)
This is the fifth and final volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles. As such, it has a valedictory feel to it, but is nevertheless a necessary read for those who've followed the family through the generations. As a whole the series is a skillfully done social chronicle of a hundred or so years of English life.
Zoran Zivkovic: The Library
This is a reread. I picked it up again because I'm writing a few short pieces for the Kurodahan Press blog about Zivkovic. The stories are as fresh as when I first read them: good fun in the key of Borges.
Anthony Trollope: Phineas Redux (The Palliser Novels)
At a pace of about one volume a year I continue to work my way through Trollope's Palliser novels. In Phineas Redux the central character, Phineas Finn, turns radical in a way that is surprising from a writer as essentially conservative as Trollope. Finn becomes entirely disillusioned with the government of which he has always wanted to be a part, and seems, at novel's end, to have, angry and disgusted, withdrawn himself from it entirely. One expects this won't last, and that even his marriage to the wealthy, attractive, and very independent Madame Goesler--a marriage, by the way, of a Catholic to a Jew in Victorian England--will not be enough for him.
Gerald Brenan: South from Granada: A Sojourn in Southern Spain (Kodansha Globe Series)
Although I won't go South of Granada this trip, Gerald Brenan's memoir of the seven years he spent living in a village called Yegen, which is on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, is a stimulating introduction to Andalucia.
Having served as a captain in World War I he set out with his (very small) service pay to find a place where he could begin to educate himself. Having become convinced that such instruction as he had received in university was worthless, he, followed by the two-thousand tome library he hoped to master, set out in search of an appropriate and affordable place to buckle down.
Yegen, an extremely remote village proved to be the place.
Unlike so many other travelers and expatriates of Brenan's generation and ours, he is not insufferable. Rather than attempting to remain aloof from the natives, he involves himself in the life of the village, and, in the long walks he takes (walking was often the most practical way of getting around), also in the life of the region. He lived better than the peasants in his village, but not quite as well as the local bourgeoisie.
And he writes with an easy elegance, neither attempting to make of himself one of those oh so (not) amusing characters that other travel writers thrust themselves forth as, nor trying to efface himself from the narrative entirely.
Brenan was, before turning his back on it, sort of a junior member of the Bloomsbury set. His accounts of visits to his Spanish fastness by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Carrington, and Lytton Strachey (however brilliant Lytton's table talk, one would never want to travel with him) impart to the account added value, unnecessary, but delightful just the same.
Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing: A Novel
I generally avoid novels that have their genesis in MFA programs, but I'm glad I happened to pick up this one, You Deserve Nothing. It's the story of Will, an American teaching at an international school in Paris-- reading about that city is always a pleasure--who has an affair with one of his students. That's a banal enough subject, but dividing the story into sections with different characters as the central focus works. There's also lots about teaching, and the relationships, healthy or otherwise, that can grow up between student and teacher. In this the book reminded me of many of Guy Davenport's fictions, which often have an older man mentoring young people at their center. With Davenport we're never meant to consider the sex that goes on between teacher and student as evil, and I think author, Alexander Maksik's stance is similar. Will is a good teacher: he cares about his students, including the one over whom he loses his job.
Josephine Tey: A Shilling for Candles
Another well written mystery by Josephine Tey. The three bucks I paid for her complete works is looking to be a good investment.
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?