book review – ‘record of a night too brief’ by hiromi kawakami

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I’ve done a terrible job of keeping up to date with posting book reviews lately. Life gets in the way; other books get in the way; other writing gets in the way. Excuses aside, I’ve been through some great novels of late and will be attempting to post at least one review per week, beginning today.

Book blurb (from Amazon) – The Akutagawa Prize-winning stories from one of the most highly regarded and provocative contemporary Japanese writers: part of our Japanese novella series, showcasing the best contemporary Japanese writing. In these three haunting and lyrical stories, three young women experience unsettling loss and romance. In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous monkeys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing. Sensual, yearning, and filled with the tricks of memory and grief, Record of a Night Too Brief is an atmospheric trio of unforgettable tales.

I was hooked on this collections of short stories from the opening line: “What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And then I realized that it was the night — the night was nibbling into me.”

Beautifully translated from the Japanese by Lucy North, Kawakami’s trio of stories leave a striking impression on the reader. Reading these tales is like being caught in a surreal recounting of dreams, or rather more like recalling and reliving the dreams of another, ethereal, dark, and sublime. With these stories the reader can’t be distracted by over-concentrating or over-thinking — you have to give yourself up to the reading, to the journey into something akin to the absurd. Fantastic events occur on nearly every page and no one, not even the narrator, gives any of these occurrences a second thought. The fantastic blends with the mundane seamlessly. The nearness of these stories to magical realism had me thinking of Marquez or Murakami, but Kawakami’s approach is entirely her own.

Kawakami’s writing is lovely, expressing an expansive imagination and a unique approach to storytelling. The stories are contemplation provoking, touching something deeper than mere analytical in the dedicated reader. I’d not experienced her before, but I will definitely be delving deeper in the worlds of Kawakami in the future.

book review – ‘go, went, gone’ by jenny erpenbeck

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I’ve enjoyed all of the books of Jenny Erpenbeck that have been translated into English thus far, so when I heard about the pending release of Go, Went, Gone I knew I would soon be reading it. Erpenbeck again did not disappoint.

Blurb (Amazon): Go, Went, Gone is the masterful new novel by the acclaimed German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, “one of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation” (The Millions). The novel tells the tale of Richard, a retired classics professor who lives in Berlin. His wife has died, and he lives a routine existence until one day he spies some African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. Curiosity turns to compassion and an inner transformation, as he visits their shelter, interviews them, and becomes embroiled in their harrowing fates. Go, Went, Gone is a scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis, but also a touching portrait of a man who finds he has more in common with the Africans than he realizes. Exquisitely translated by Susan Bernofsky, Go, Went, Gone addresses one of the most pivotal issues of our time, facing it head-on in a voice that is both nostalgic and frightening.

This is a book that every single American needs to read. We think of the refugee crisis in Europe intellectually, and we often hear phrases like, “I know how I’d handle that shit.” But we know nothing. We understand nothing. The glory of this novel is the imparting of something as near to experiential knowledge as is possible without actually experiencing the crisis described.

I often read books in translation, and I tend to enjoy differing aspects of books from different places. I adore the beautiful use of language and relationships in Japanese novels; I adore the simple complexity of Chinese literary fiction; I adore the stark yet emotionally potent use of language and action in German novels. Erpenbeck’s writing is masterful, an exquisite use of prose that any lover of language and literature would be remiss to ignore – flawless use of phrase, lyrical, beautiful, and meticulous. I could hardly stand to put this novel down, reading late into the night until I could barely hold my eyes open. Her writing coupled with the story she’s chosen to tell make this one of the best novels I’ve read in 2017.

Our protagonist, Richard, follows a path:
– encounters refugees (and doesn’t even realize it until later);
– considers their plight;
– begins to research their countries of origin and circumstances that might have led them to Germany (I loved this research, this desire to understand and learn);
– begins to listen to the stories of some of the Africans as part of a personal project;
– begins to sympathize, and eventually empathize for these men, feeling their pain and their loss of home and independence;
– his understanding of humankind and even myth (his area of specialty) begins to transform as his experiences and research expand his horizons of knowledge.

Through his grappling with the issues we also wrestle with larger questions of human rights, dignity, purpose, borders, freedom, independence, and sustainability, among others.

The topic of immigration and refugees is critical for us in the US to consider, especially considering the ugly discussions ongoing about the wall and immigration in general. Perhaps living with Richard’s story, for as long as it takes to read, will help position the discussion in terms of humanity rather than only numbers and fears and dollars.

A few excerpts:
“Seen from this perspective, it’s downright ridiculous to measure a transition by the presence of a body. Seen from this perspective, the uninhabitability of Europe for a refugee suddenly stands in direct relationship to the uninhabitability of the very flesh that is given to every human spirit to inhabit until the end of his days.” p65

“Indeed, the law has made a shift from physical reality to the realm of language. The foreigner, who is at home in neither of these countries, is trapped between these now-invisible fronts in an intra-European discussion that has nothing at all to do with him or the actual war he’s trying to escape from.” p68

“But the inhabitants of this territory…are defending their borders with articles of law, they assail these newcomers with their secret weapon call time, poking out their eyes with days and weeks, crushing them with months…” p81

“Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?” p241

‘sing, unburied, sing’ and jesmyn ward

I was honored to attend a book signing and reading by Jesmyn Ward at Lemuria Books on September 26, 2017. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’d never read anything by Ward before attending the event. She was on my list of authors to read, I just hadn’t made it around to her yet (it’s a terribly long list). Fortunately for me, I have now.

Blurb for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster) – In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop.

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But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.

I don’t have a real review prepared for this novel, but I did want to share just a few things. Ward’s writing is beautiful, and her treatment of material in the book is simply wonderful. The reader finds themselves riding in the car, smelling the scents (both good and bad), feeling the heat, watching the ghosts, alongside the narrators in the novel. The structure, while not unique, is managed by powerfully swapping between two primary narrators with dramatically different points of view, interspersed a few times with a third, very different, narrator. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of family dynamics, race, Southern culture, growing up and growing old, the drug epidemic, and more. This novel also contains, near the end, one of the most powerful death scenes I’ve ever come across in all of literature. A definite must-read novel of 2017.

Since her reading in Jackson, it has been announced by the MacArthur Foundation that Jesmyn Ward has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded one of the famed Genius Grant for 2017. From what I’ve seen and read, she deserves every bit of the success and recognition. Congratulations!

a few thoughts – ‘always happy hour’ by mary miller

I picked up this book over the weekend just to have something to read, enjoy, and relax. I had no intention of saying anything about it, so I read it differently than I would a book I intended on reviewing – I made no notes, I just read. By the time I was through the first few stories I knew I’d at least like to recommend the book, so that’s what I’m doing today.

Always Happy Hour is a great book of short stories!

I loved her voice…I could easily hear my relatives or neighbors telling stories in the Southern tone captured so wonderfully by Miller throughout her collection. The authenticity of the stories, in this way and others, was refreshing and engaging. I really wanted to pick up the phone and invite both author and narrator(s) to hang out and have a beer! My only observation which might be mistaken for criticism is that the main character is every story is much the same, in a way that made the collection read more like a novel told out of order…but she provided an interesting cohesion to the collection that’s often lacking in a book of short stories.

Buy it, read it, love it – I can’t wait to read more by Mary Miller!

book review – ‘incest’ by christine angot

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I heard about this book on 20 July 2017 and immediately requested an ARC. I received it about 30 minutes later and began reading on my lunch break.

About the book (from Amazon): A daring novel that made Christine Angot one of the most controversial figures in contemporary France recounts the narrator’s incestuous relationship with her father. Tess Lewis’s forceful translation brings into English this audacious novel of taboo. The narrator is falling out from a torrential relationship with another woman. Delirious with love and yearning, her thoughts grow increasingly cyclical and wild, until exposing the trauma lying behind her pain. With the intimacy offered by a confession, the narrator embarks on a psychoanalysis of herself, giving the reader entry into her tangled experiences with homosexuality, paranoia, and, at the core of it all, incest. In a masterful translation from the French by Tess Lewis, Christine Angot’s Incest audaciously confronts its readers with one of our greatest taboos.

It took me about 20% of the novel to decide whether Angot was brilliant or a hack. After a parenthetical conversation with her editor, I knew – she’s a genius. She reminds me of Henry Miller this way, how it can be a bit difficult to discern exactly where she’s going, or even where she is, at any given moment in the text. It takes a bit of reading to catch on the style of this particular novel (I’ve not read her before, so I can’t comment on her other works or even make a comparison), both structurally and content-wise, but once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in three short sittings.

The novel breaks down into about 4 distinct sections [not marked as such in the text, so perhaps it’s better to say that the novel logically separated into 4 sections in my reading], and I’d like to make a few comments on each.

  • 1st section – This portion of the book comprises about the first half of the text. The pace is frenetic and reminded me of listening to someone in the middle of a manic episode, or high on meth (don’t ask how I know), except every word was also beautiful. It was like the smartest person you’ve ever met trying to force out the solution to save humanity with their final breath – intense. Intense is the perfect word for the entire novel, most especially for the 1st and 4th sections (as I’m listing them here). Uncomfortable is another apt description, both for content and for concept. This half of the book is a cyclical narrative of a relationship continually ending but not ending but ending – it is thoughtful, compelling, painfully realistic thought patterns on full display. We’re nearly crazy at the end (of anything, really), complete with racing thoughts, jumbled ideas, paranoia, fear, anger, dismay, and confusion. Angot wonderfully captures the sense of an ending.
  • 2nd section – Here we have a distinct and intentional change, explained to us by the narrator herself. The structure and flow change entirely, though not the overall tone. We’re still watching a woman fall apart, but in a much more clearly diagrammed way. There’s no more cycling, rather a deliberately paced narrative, broken only a few times.
  • 3rd section – Section 3 is clearly unlike the rest of the novel, being a list of mostly (but not entirely) psychology and sociology terms, loosely defined through the narrator’s own understanding and story. It is part of her attempt to understand why she engages with her life in the peculiar way she does.
  • 4th section – The fourth and final section of the novel continues in the vein of part 2, but with more interjecting of the narrative style of part 1. The narrator always calms herself down, however, restates her point, and continues on with a mostly calm and direct accounting of what’s going on. Finally, at about 75% of totality, the narrator directly addresses the title of the novel – incest. She mentions it a few times throughout, but now she tells her story. It’s tough reading. Shame palpable. Acknowledgement of the fact is where she wants to be, allowing it to override fear/shame/hatred/love. Between the brokenness of the the first half and the halting attempts to relate a story too taboo for words, this part of the novel is intense beyond understanding, much less words. You just have to read it.
  • A final note before I end my review of this amazing text…while perhaps not technically a stream of consciousness novel, Incest works better as one than most anything I’ve ever read. Ulysses is the original, but not as mature (heresy, I know); The Waves is the height, but there’s something more honest about Incest. Many try to write (or have tried) stream of consciousness, but this novel, stylistically, is near perfection.

    I would recommend this novel to anyone, especially fans of modern/contemporary literary fiction or experimental fiction. Even from my review it’s easy to tell that the book isn’t for everyone, but I will unabashedly say that the novel is pure, uncompromising, punishing brilliance.

    I got far too involved in my reading to capture many of the quotes I loved, but here are a few I snapped early on…