Veronica Gonzalez Peña: The Sad Passions (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)
Veronica Gonzalez Peña quotes the photographer Francesca Goldman quoting Proust: "A person, scattered in space and time, is no longer a woman but a series of events on which we can throw no light, a series of insoluble problems." In this account of a family of women whose lives bear the imprint placed on them by the insane mother Peña employs their varied voices to shed light on just these insoluble problems. The Sad Passions is another fascinating and challenging text from Semiotext(e), one of our most interesting publishers.
Sarah Pinborough: A Matter of Blood (Forgotten Gods Trilogy)
The mix of gritty, urban, all too believable,near-future anomie, and fantasy of a kind that has nothing to do with swords or lords, intrigued me enough to start the book. As I moved through it, though, I often found myself thinking that it really wasn't gripping enough to keep on with. Until it was, and I'm now I'm thinking I'll probably continue through the trilogy.
Sara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway
With Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway Sara Gran gives us a worthy follow-up to City of the Dead, the novel in which we were introduced to her sleuth. Gran skillfully weaves together two investigations, one in the past and mostly set in New York's East Village, and one in the present and mostly set in Northern California. For the detective DeWitt, detection continues to be a mystical calling fueled by lots of drugs. She does a line of coke about as often as the protagonists of Hemingway novels have a drink, and like Hemingway's drinkers, she is still mostly able to function . . . until she isn't. We'll find out more about that, I expect, in the next installment.
Gerald Vizenor: Blue Ravens: Historical Novel
Native Americans: a culture destroyed, relegated to dusty reservations, alcoholic and hopeless. Native Americans: wise stewards of the Earth who remain dignified in spite of the indignities they have suffered. These are the images that spring all too readily to the minds of many of us who are not Native Americans. It takes a writer like Gerald Vizenor, "citizen of the White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabeg in Minnesota," to show us that these images are insufficient, to de-exoticize the native cultures that have been viewed through lenses that distort. In Blue Ravens he tells us the story of two Anishinaabe brothers who, as we follow them from the reservation on which they grow up, through the trenches of World War I, back to the reservation, and back to Paris where, writer and artist, they enter the Bohemian artistic world of that place and time. Vizenor teaches us much, though the characters he creates, about our history, our present, and our relation with those we've been taught to consider "other," and he does it in a fashion that does credit to the trickster tales that have inspired him.
Kanai Meiko: Indian Summer (Cornell East Asia Series)
So much did I enjoy Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! that I quickly got my hands on the only other book in her Mejiro series that's been translated into English, Indian Summer. This first-person account of a young woman newly arrived in Tokyo to attend university is filled with wit and pleasantly acerbic takes on city life, movies, literature, and human beings. "Chick lit" is often used as a derogatory term, and surely a lot of the books that fly that banner deserve all the derogation they get (in this they're no different than dick-lit--Tom Clancy, et al), but as with every other genre (including literary fiction) mixed in with the lumps of coal there are some real gems. This is one of them.
Hisaki Matsuura: Triangle (Japanese Literature Series)
Ever since cities began to become the place we live now they have been a source of anxiety. The anxiety seems to have been born of first, the anonymity that cities afford--no one knows who you are--and the way in which this threatens our identity, and second, the promiscuous mixing that city life involves with strangers of different genders and of all races and classes. Though one would think we would have grown comfortable with the anonymity and promiscuity of city-life by now, novels such as Hisaki Matsuura's [Triangle] suggest that cities still make some of us nervous, perhaps because cities, particularly those as multifarious as Tokyo, are rich with possibility and peril: anything can happen. We might, for example, when walking at dusk, "known as omagatoki, 'the time of evil encounters'" run into, as Matsuura's protagonist does, an old acquaintance who, wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, appears to be waiting for us, and our encounter with him might just propel us into a gothic nightmare that will include hidden gardens containing steamy conservatories in which sinister philosopher-pornographers hold forth on the cyclical nature of time, and whose machinations will eventually lead us into rivers that run deep under Tokyo. We will, opening Matsuura's Triangle, be propelled into a psycho-geographically informed version of city life, one whose gothic darkness is unresolved at novel's end. Though one would think we would have grown comfortable with the anonymity and promiscuity of city-life by now, novels such as Hisaki Matsuura's Triangle suggest that cities still make some of us nervous, perhaps because cities, particularly those as multifarious as Tokyo, are rich with possibility and peril: anything can happen. We might, for example, when walking at dusk, "known as omagatoki, 'the time of evil encounters'" encounter, as Matsuura's protagonist does, an old acquaintance who, wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, appears to be waiting for us, and our encounter with him might just propel us into a gothic nightmare that will include hidden gardens containing steamy conservatories in which sinister philosopher-pornographers, hold forth on the cyclical nature of time, and whose machinations eventually lead us into rivers that run deep under Tokyo. We will, opening Matsuura's Triangle, be propelled into a psycho-geographically informed version of city life, one whose gothic darkness is unresolved at novel's end.
Barry Eisler: The Detachment (John Rain Thrillers)
This is a satisfying installment in the John Rain series. Rain continues to grow in complexity as a character, but I fear that in an effort to make each book a bit more sensational than the last Eisler may have written himself into a corner (actually, there are probably books subsequent to this one, but I haven't checked). The Detachment gives us not Rain against a few sleazy bad guys, or even a formidable underworld empire. In this one he's busy thwarting a coup in the United States. What next? Space aliens?
Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat
This is the third Japanese novel I've read in a row in which cats play an important part. None of these books, though, are what might be called cat books, though the cat in Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, Chibi, has a larger role than the felines in the other novels. Chibi, though he actually belongs to their neighbors, enters the lives of a couple, both free-lance writers, living in a leafy Tokyo neighborhood. As the couple become more involved with the cat, they also seem to become more engaged with life and with each other. In a simpler novel, that would be the story: an animal friend helps its people wake up to the beauty of life. Cats die, though, and cottages in leafy Tokyo neighborhoods with rents that free-lancers can afford are just as transitory. The narrative becomes complicated, and also the manner in which it is told: we learn that the novel we are reading is, in part, an account of its own creation, an act which may not, without Chibi, have taken place.
Mieko Kanai: Oh, Tama!
Cats. If you spend any time at all on the Internet, and you're not a cat person yourself, you've had enough of them, even when they're riding on Roombas. It would be a shame, though, if the same impulse--quite a healthy impulse--that makes you scroll past the cat pics on Facebook caused you to miss novels like Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama!. Tama is a cat, but the novel is not about cats, and indeed Tama, gravid when when we first meet her, seldom emerges from the closet where she nurses the kittens she soon has after being dumped on our protagonist, a sporadically employed free-lance photographer called Noriyuki. She is in the novel for a reason, though. It is unlikely she could identify the father of her kittens, and Oh, Tama! has much to do with parents, or rather paternity, and children. We see, as the novel unfolds, how several characters who lack strong family ties form a family of sorts for themselves, a family with all the ambivalence of a biological family. If that sounds trite--isn't this the premise of several popular TV shows now?--it isn't. The odd bits of life that Kanai captures in the interactions of these characters draw us in even as they are never exactly important. This novel is one in a series of "Mejiro" (a Tokyo neighborhood) novels that Kanai has produced. Upon finishing this one I immediately ordered the only other entry that's been translated into English. One character who I'm sure will recur is the "lady novelist" who falls asleep at parties.
Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
I've never really warmed to the English jocular tradition, but I've just finished, with real enjoyment, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy Sayers. The mystery is . . . well, who really cares who done it . . . but the incidental observations, the jaundiced view of advertising (Wimsey is embedded at an advertising agency), and the fun with language made the novel a great deal of fun. Perhaps I'm growing up . . . or old. Maybe I'll finally get P.G. Wodehouse?
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. (*****)
John Williams: Stoner
The author lays it out on the first page: the protagonist, an early 20th century university lecturer, was forgotten on his death. And indeed the life as it unfolds is one of failures both gentle and spectacular. And so, in the way of few stories and fewer biographies, it is a life by which we can measure our own less than unqualified success. This is a novel that is understated and gloriously written. It’s been awhile since I cried toward the end of a book, but I did here. (*****)
Nina Stibbe: Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life
Nina is a young woman from the provinces who goes to London to be a nanny because she thought it would be a nice life. And so it turns out. What she couldn’t have known is that the mother whose children she looks after is the one-of-a-kind editor of the London Review of Books, whose neighbor and friend is playwright Alan Bennett. Nina reports incidents from family life to her sister back home in letters of grittiness, charm, and enormous hilarity. I couldn’t put it down. (*****)
George Saunders: Tenth of December
This is a rewarding collection of short stories about inequality, morality, human folly and meaning well. Saunders writes with compassion, and is excellent with voice so we find ourselves inhabiting his fascinating characters. The stories are suspenseful, funny, and well observed. If all this sounds on the bland side, know that the stories are sometimes deeply weird for mixing in science-fiction trappings. I love the Victorian classic “The Diary of A Nobody” so I was amazed to find a hilariously pitch-perfect update in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (until it edges in an altogether darker direction). Unless you want a spoiler for that story, I’d advise skipping the book’s introduction until you finish the volume. (*****)