Josephine Tey: To Love and Be Wise
It was nice to have Inspector Grant back in the mix after the last entry, from which he was conspicuously absent. It was also nice that, although there's a bit of gender-bending, or at least transvestitism, in To Love and Be Wise, that neither Grant nor his creator Tey are at all judgemental about it. And the tale is smartly told, garnished with sharp observations and sentences that crackle. My complete Tey for Kindle for a couple of bucks was a great buy.
Haruki Murakami: Absolutely on Music: Conversations
A fan, knowledgeable about an art form in the way only dedicated fans are, in conversation with a master practitioner of the art in question: that's what Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa have given us in Absolutely On Music, a series of transcribed conversations between the two artists. The combination of the two—fan and master, writer and musician—is ideal. Murakami is knowledgeable enough that the questions he asks Ozawa are intelligent and informed (it will be no surprise to his readers that he is a close and careful listener), but since he is a non-musician who, by his own admission, can barely read a score, they are at the same time, imbued with just enough ignorance of the musician's craft that they elicit answers that are illuminating to those of us who are also fans, and perhaps not as knowledgeable in our enthusiasm as Murakami. Like all good works of this sort it will send readers back to the music the artists discuss, enriched by both Ozawa's knowledge and Murakami's informed enthusiasm.
Ben Lerner: The Hatred of Poetry
Poetry's complexity assures that it is always fun to think about (and wags might chortle that it's more fun to think about than it is to read). In Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry he thinks about why people do tend to hate the stuff, but that's really just a ruse. He's actually talking about how wonderful poetry, or at least our platonic image of it, is. It's that poetry often falls short of what it, ideally, could be that we hate. Because we don't hate it. In fact, we love the stuff so much that even if we don't, you know, read it, we are appalled to see it fall short of what we somehow know it should be. If Lerner were to write about why people really hate poetry it would, I think, focus on another explanation altogether: difficulty. "If poets want to say something, why don't they just say it? Why do they have to complicate it with all those pesky language games." And so on.
Ross MacDonald: The Far Side of the Dollar
Lew Archer is a World War II vet, the kind of guy who—if he weren't the preternaturally sensitive hard guy that he is—one would expect to be disgusted with the beatniks, soon to become hippies, that were starting to appear in the post-war world. Because he is preternaturally sensitive, and the progeny of an author who cared about things like disaffected youth and the traumas to which their parents had subjected them, he takes a much more sympathetic approach to the confused youngsters he crosses tracks with in The Far Side of the Dollar. One of the youngsters, it hardly needs to be said, is running with a bad crowd, driven there by his despicable parents, or maybe they're not despicable, or not both of them, and maybe they're not his parents, or not both of them . . . .
Mathias Énard: Zone
The entire novel takes place on a train, or at least emanates from a train where, as our protagonist travels, his mind travels through the violence of our time and previous times. In fact, he has chained to the rack above him a suitcase filled with accounts and evidence of these horrors which he is on his way to Rome to sell. As a member of French intelligence and a former member of a Croatian militia he has been party to some of the atrocities he hopes to sell, and in selling, to escape. Much has been made of Mathias Énard's decision to eschew conventional punctuation and to write his novel as, more or less, one sentence. The novel reads easily, even lacking full stops; it's hard to put it down. The novels I've read this year confirm that the novel is far from dead.
Vu Tran: Dragonfish: A Novel
I picked this up on a whim at the Halifax airport, and though such whims sometimes pay off, this time I was not so lucky. Although telling a story about Vietnamese refugees in the United States through a hard-boiled noirish lens is potentially interesting, there's no snap to the language, and the meditations on society—and hard-boiled detectives at their best are among our most perceptive and witty observers of society—are banal. Reading the puffery from other readers and critics that adorns this volume it's hard for me to believe I read the same book as those critics.
Arturo Silva: Tokio Whip
Think of all the really great novels about Tokyo by non-Japanese. That's not such an easy task, because when one does start to think about it, it becomes clear that there aren't any. Until, maybe, now. I say "maybe" only because one hesitates to throw around accolades like "great" too cavalierly, but Arturo Silva's Tokio Whip seems to me by far the best work by a non-Japanese about the Japanese capital that I have seen. One reason for this is the form of this novel in which form is very much foregrounded. Silva understands that simple first-this-happened-then-that-happened narratives—and, god forbid, bildungsroman about young people finding themselves in Japan—don't suffice to capture the chaos that overlays the order that conceals more chaos that is Tokyo. There' s a story here, a love story even with a happy ending, but the story is just one thing happening in the city, to Roberta, Lang, and their group of artistic, intellectual friends, and the fragments, the conversations, the descriptions, the guidebook pastiches, and the other goodies of which Tokio Whip is built make for a novel where one doesn't just read about Tokyo, but lives it.
Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa
Japanese literature from Okinawa is literature that most of us who read in English—and, one suspects, many who read in Japanese—know nothing about. For that reason alone this book is essential. That it is largely literature composed of stories, poems, and a play that are clearly littérature engagée also must be essential to virtually any art emerging from a place that has been, and continues to be, exploited and oppressed to the extent that Okinawa has and is; the work collected in Islands of Protest—note the title—is no exception. The prose, poetry, and drama collected here, however, is uniformly strong enough that it will appeal even to those who feel distant from Okinawan history and struggle. Indeed, it is the most openly engaged of all the work, a play that might be described as political burlesque, "The Human Pavilion" by Chinen Seishin, that is also, in its humor, in its horror, in its slapstick and unexpectedness that is among the most engaging. That another stand-out is Toma Hiroko's poem "Backbone" makes one wish that the selection was a bit more balanced between poetry and prose (200+ pages of prose, ten or so of poetry). Still, to reiterate, the collection is essential to anyone interested in literature and Okinawa.
Ross Macdonald: The Chill
Fog is the dominant environmental motif of this Lew Archer outing, and that is not unrelated to the fact that psychology, the human mind, is at the center of the novel. It is interesting to read a novel such as this one from a time before Freudian-inflected psychology was seen, by popular novelists, as something to be made fun of as a matter of course. And the hints that continue to be dropped about Lew Archer's background allow us to continue our ongoing (psycho-?) analysis of the enigmatic detective.
Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair
A typically adept Josephine Tey novel, but one that is atypical in that her usual hero, Inspector Alan Grant, makes only brief appearances, having been upstaged by a provincial lawyer. Tey seems to me a master stylist. Her novels may be entertainments, but her every sentence drips with intelligence.
Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
It’s sometimes sketchily written, sometimes overwrought, and characters feel subordinate to the books big ideas. But what ideas! That our lives can become fossilized. That good people can make horrible mistakes. That receiving is as difficult and blessed as giving. This novel of an unlikely man’s walk through England is compelling enough to overcome its shortcomings. (***)
Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
The diary of a teenager captures her eccentric and impoverished family as they rattle around an English castle between the World Wars. A celebration of England, literature, family, growing up, and a simple country life, told with warmth and humor. A gem of a book. Thanks to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for the recommendation. (****)
Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
This story of ageing parents and their grown children is, as a relative said of another Franzen novel, rich and full. It stands out for its width and depth of understanding, its truth, and its humor, captured in language of astonishing precision. Compelling, eye-opening and very satisfying. (*****)
Jonathan Franzen: Purity
A rich and satisfying story set in our broken world (East Germany before the wall came down, and contemporary California). Characters you sympathize with (or cringe at), who grow (or don’t). I thank the author for crafting all this so meticulously for our reading pleasure, and that we might know more about how people (ourselves included) are, and so feel more compassion. What a wonderful book. I didn’t want it to end, and in a sense it doesn’t, because, through the memory of it, we continue observing ourselves and the world carrying on, doing the best we can. (*****)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
I read this for its reputation as the prolific author’s best novel. It’s absorbing, with rounded characters and an involving plot that distract from the conclusion, obvious when it arrives and no less satisfying for that. Novels are said to boost our empathy. Chalk this delightful, sometimes painful family saga as a case in point: I think I understand people a little better for having read it. An enjoyable book, and I’ve added more Tyler to my reading list. (****)
Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life
This saga, which features supple prose and sometimes luminous description, follows the lives of four college friends and a handful of others close to them, but it eventually centers upon one life of almost unrelieved mental and physical pain, chronicled in excruciating detail. After dutifully reading the first 350 pages, I could bear it no longer and paged past the sufferings of the subsequent 350. I think I know what the author was aiming for—something that’s spelled out on the last page—and the book succeeds at it, but a homeopathic dose of the bitter medicine would have done it for me. (****)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
My first Ishiguro, and a new genre for me: Arthurian fantasy romance. In spite of pixies, ogres and dragons, it pretty much worked; I lost myself in the mannered prose and solid storytelling, and now want to know more about that period of history. I regretted the vague ending. There were other loose ends; I don't desire a sequel but if it came I care enough about the characters to want to read it. However, nothing here makes me reach for earlier Ishiguro. (Let me know if I should.) (***)