Friday, December 2, 2016

November: Supermoon and super reads

Ah yes, November -- the month of the supermoon, elections, Thanksgiving and of course, super books.  Not a bad one in this month's bunch.  How can one person read so many books in one month? you might ask, which is a fair question, with the answer being that  the election results left me unable to sleep for days at a time and sort of stunned to the point where I just wanted to retreat into a sane world of literature. At least when insane stuff happens there it's fiction -- you can check out any time you like...  'nuff said.

Starting with crime fiction, we have 

Crush , by Frédéric Dard
Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard, both from Pushkin Vertigo
In A Lonely Place, by Dorothy Hughes, basis of the movie with Humphrey Bogart
The Riddle of Monte Verita, by Jean-Paul Török, an homage to the classic locked-room mystery
Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, which was maybe a little less streamlined than it could have been but is a really good study of what creates a psychopath and
The White Devil, by Dominic Stansberry, which is a lovely mystery based on a classic play

moving onto the strange, there's 

Clark, by Brendan Connell, which is just absolutely delightfully original and refreshing, published by Snuggly Books, who is fast becoming one of my favorite publishers in the universe
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, which, if you'll pardon me for saying so, scared the shit out of me even though it was written in 1935, and which I recommend to anyone and everyone right now at this particular given moment in American history because he shows how it can happen here
Lonely Haunts, published by another small indie press, Coachwhip Publications, and which features the work of two previously-unknown (to me) and rather obscure writers of ghost stories
Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy, from Valancourt Books (my ultimate favorite small publisher), a creepy novel about strangers stranded in a haunted house in Scotland.  Written in the 1970s, but still able to produce spine chills
Muladona, by Eric Stener Carlson, from Tartarus Press. Carlson is a wonderful but not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be author who should be read more widely.  This book was all-around creepy as a young boy has a week to discover the name of the entity haunting him or else. That's just the surface story, though -- so much other stuff is going on here that needs to be read about
The Outcast Spirit and Other Stories, by Lady Dilke, also from Snuggly Books, which I absolutely LOVED because of the ethereal feel of its contents and because she's a new obscure woman writer to add to my list.

Now to nonfiction, you know, with FACTS that can be checked, etc., 

Well, there are only two book in this category this month, neither of which I've written about yet but will soon be posted. First, part one of Stephen Fry's amazing autobiography/memoir, Moab is My Washpot, which I just loved; and second My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of One of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan, which is the memoir of Liane de Pougy, a great friend of one of my favorite writers ever, Jean Lorrain. de Pougy's book is meant to be one in a series of memoirs written by women, but I have one more book, The Mayor of Mogadishu to read before I can really embark on that path. 

and finally, the literature,

in which I'm making an effort to read new books combined with what has been just languishing away on my shelves forever:
Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki (on this very page), as is 
The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov, published by and other stories, another little press whose books I've had good luck with enough to have bought a subscription for the year
The Man With Two Left Feet, by PG Wodehouse, along with his The Inimitable Jeeves, both of which I loved loved loved.  We watched the entire Jeeves and Wooster series, and I discovered that it's a great place to go when one is depressed, as are the books.  I probably won't post about the Wodehouse books, but I'm just head over heels.

that's it, happy reading, and yada yada yada. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

beware: rant ahead -- it's been a crap month for buying from Amazon sellers

This has been me over the last month  or so.  Not once, not twice, but three times I've had issues with  different sellers who have been less than up front about what they actually have in stock, and of course, I'm the one who ends up being disappointed and frustrated to the point of tearing out my hair. This is the part where I name names, because this is just crap and people shouldn't be treated like this. To be fair, I've ordered a lot more from other sellers that actually did their jobs in a very good way, but I just get so angry when I feel like the bad sellers could care less about their customers.

on with the crap sellers:

 MovieMars, from whom I ordered a British dvd on 10/29, sort of didn't tell me that the item they had "in stock" actually came from the UK, and that it would be four weeks before it arrived.  When I emailed the company  (via Amazon buyer/seller messages) that the tracking number they gave me (DHL global, of course -- slower than molasses) didn't seem to exist in the DHL tracking system, their response was that "tracking doesn't seem to be working right now."  Well, hell, it wasn't working EVER, at any time, not just on the day I made the inquiry.  In the meantime, I ordered books from the UK and other dvds through Rarewaves Imports and other sellers, and they all got here within two weeks.  I'll just be skipping MovieMars in future, even if I have to pay more from someone else.

Then there's a company I'll NEVER buy from again, melisandy.  These people just take the freakin' cake.  Again, they listed a book at a decent price, I bought it, and like MovieMars, the book they had "in stock" ended up coming from the UK and no one bothered to tell me when I asked where my book was.  Not only that, but they bloody well lied to me in the process:
"Dear Nancy        
Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays). In rare instances items may take up to 21 business days to arrive. But most of our books has been arrived earlier than expected time.I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know. "

Oh yes. And then the tracking number ... nonexistent, which I discovered when I emailed back to inquire about it. Response:

"Dear Nancy , Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. I am sorry but this order has any tracking number. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays).I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know.                      Best regards
And then, of course, my book comes, and not only was it NOT mailed "media mail" as the two responses I received said it was, but it came from the UK, from somewhere called Chalky's. To top that off, they didn't bother to mark it shipped on Amazon until nearly a week after they said they'd mailed it.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but for me the customs declaration label, along with the return address label from a store in the UK sort of gives it away that melisasandy didn't have the damn book in stock to begin with.  So then I wrote again to say I was disappointed that I was lied to, and the only response I got was "I'll pass on your disappointment to the shipping department."    I still haven't written that feedback, but it's coming.

Case #3 -- another book from another seller (whose name I'll provide if this doesn't get sorted quickly),  a hardcover copy of a novel I've been wanting to read which ended up coming to me as an ARC copy.  I haven't heard back from them yet, but I can't wait to see what they have to say. How the hell do you go from hardcover, like new,  to ARC? Hmm. My guess would be that they didn't have the hardcover in stock to begin with.  This is just bogus and it's another company my dollars will never reach. 

I don't get why Amazon doesn't crack down on sellers who can't actually lay hands on what they're selling and have to get it from somewhere else. Sheesh! If I wanted it from somewhere else, I would have bought it from somewhere else.  

rant over. Share any experiences like these -- I feel better knowing I'm not alone. 

*Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki

Penguin Classics, 2010
originally published as こころ, 1914
translated by Meredith McKinney
238 pp


This novel would probably still be languishing on my shelves had it not been for an online friend who, reading it with a group,  suggested I read it along with her. Great idea, because it also gave me the opportunity to read yet one more book I've owned forever that's just been languishing on my shelves unread. 

  Kokoro is,as I discovered, one of those novels where a second reading and a bit of research can completely change what you thought about it after the first time through. The second read was spurred by 1) discovering that a scholarly controversy had arisen over this book and 2) deciding to pick up and read another translation along with an introduction that explained said controversy. After much time to focus, think and absorb, well, the second time around actually clarified things I had trouble zooming in on after the first time. 

(the second time through): trans. Edwin McClellan
Peter Owen Publishers, 2007

Structured in three parts, the novel opens with the narrator meeting and attaching himself to an elder man he calls Sensei, and is soon "yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer." However, Sensei, who reveals that he distrusts humanity, is reticent to open up about himself, and our narrator often finds himself frustrated when, as he says, "I failed to gain what I sought from him in matters of the mind." However, Sensei also reveals that while he is "suspicious" of most people, he realizes that the narrator seems "too straightforward and open for that," and that Sensei, before he dies, wants to "have trusted just one person." If the younger man could "be that person, ... sincerely in earnest," from his heart, then he will reveal to him the story of his past and leave nothing out, but not right away, since "It requires a suitable moment." What he wants in return is left unspoken for the moment. Eventually the narrator will learn all, but not before part two, which finds him back home with his parents. While there because his father's health is failing, he abandons his own family at a critical moment due to some disturbing news from Sensei, which sets up part three, where all is revealed. Sadly, since everything sort of turns on the revelations in part three, I have to keep silent, since to tell would be to spoil, but this is actually the part where we come to understand Sensei and where we learn exactly what it is he expects from the narrator -- it isn't expressly stated in so many words, but trust me, it's there. 

I wish I could make this post less cryptic, but there's a lot happening in this novel that a reader really needs to experience and sort out on his/her own. Look for thematic elements such as the formation of bonds, relationships, betrayal, individual vs. social responsibility, love, and above all, what it really means to bare or entrust one's soul/psyche to an outsider. What I will say is that after the second reading, Kokoro became an even darker book than it was the first time through, which I didn't think was possible.  Interesting factoid: the use of hiragana for the word kokoro (
こころ)  rather than the kanji (;) has,  according to Tony Rayns, who wrote the liner notes for the dvd,

"the effect of diffusing the meaning, making it seem less clear-cut and more open to semantic and philosophical nuances. For Soseki, this was related to the sense that the Japanese national psyche was changing; he saw an emptiness in Japan's kokoro brought on by external pressures from the West and internal pressures to assimilate them."  

Highly recommended for people who enjoy Japanese literature or for people who want to start reading Japanese fiction; it probably won't take everyone two readings, but I got a lot more out of it by doing it that way. 

So, having read the novel I had to see the film as well. Big differences abound here, which are covered a bit in the dvd liner notes. As just one example,  the movie "simplifies" Soseki's novel, "reorders its plot and eliminates some of its subtext while playing up the homosexual implications that are merely latent in the original."  I have to say that since the subject doesn't actually come up labeled as such in the novel, I was surprised to see a scene in this book where Shizu (Mrs. Sensei) starts wondering out loud whether or not there's some sort of attraction between her husband and Hioki  (the novel's narrator, given a name here) which Hioki quickly denies with an "it's not what your thinking!" response.  Much of the story is revealed through flashbacks, which I think really is the best way to have done it, since so much of the novel turns on what happened in the past.  I've seen people criticize this approach used here, but I really don't see how else it could have been done. To tell it in a linear-narrative, chronological style would have wrecked things (as it would have in the novel as well).   While the movie is certainly  worth watching, the book is much, much better. There are movie critiques everywhere so I'll leave it there. 

book & movie -- definite yesses, but definitely read the book first.  

fiction from Japan

Monday, November 21, 2016

oh my god - that ending! Whoa! The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov

and other stories, 2014
originally published as Delo Matyushina, 1997
translated by Andrew Bromfield
249 pp


The Matiushin Case is second in a trio of stand-alone army novels known as the Last Days trilogy, which begins with Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (his first novel, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1995) and concludes with Requiem for a Soldier.  The Matiushin Case won the Russian Booker Prize in 2002, which is how it came to my attention (and thanks to and other stories for translating it, to my home).  Pavlov has also been awarded a number of other honors: the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2012, a spot on the shortlist for the Russian National Literary Award "Big Book" in 2010, three literary magazine prizes, and he was a nominee for the Russian Booker Prize of the Decade in 2011.  His first novel was published when he was just 24.

Well, it's a good thing that I don't mind bleak in my reading, since no light seems to shine through anywhere in this story. That's not a bad thing -- on the contrary, sometimes people in books don't have happy lives, just as in real life there are people for whom life isn't always lived on the sunny side.  And while several literary people have pointed out what they see as this novel's flaws,  I don't care -- I was very taken with this novel.  For me this was one hell of a reading experience. When I feel like I'm locked into a claustrophobic, hazy hell along with an already-damaged character and that there's no possibility of escape until the end, well,  to me that's a sign of a good book. Disturbing, yes, but if I'm that disturbed as a reader, well then the author's done his job.

The reality is that it is not a happy world Matiushin is living in here, which we discover as the book follows him from childhood to his time as a young Soviet Army soldier, where he ends up as a guard at a horrific Soviet labor camp aka The Zone.  As a child he grew up in an unhappy, unstable home with his mother, a brother and an overbearing, often violent and drunk military father; as a young recruit he finds himself in a world of corruption, mind-numbing routine, violence, and brutality among his fellow soldiers.  But it's the aha-moment ending that really got to me, one I never saw coming, and one that afforded an entirely different perspective on some earlier parts of this novel.

Obviously I haven't really given much away here, and it's better that way in case anyone decides to read it sometime down the road.  I'll post two reviews but I'd suggest refraining from reading anything that gives away too much.  Anyone at all interested in literature reflecting the Soviet era should not miss this book -- while it has many of the same thematic elements as a lot of other literature of its time, there's something different in this one, causing the story to worm its way into my brain and refuse to leave.

review: Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian, 08/21/2014
review: Brandy Harrison, Three Percent

fiction from Russia

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

Hogarth, 2016
320 pp

arc - my thanks to the algorithms and the good people at LT.

If you haven't read this book yet, go and get a copy. It's delightful. My only regret is that I didn't listen to it, although I'm thinking I just might -- there are a few theatrical numbers here that would be more entertaining in stereo, that is, if they're actually set to music. If anyone knows whether this is so, please let me know.

As I said, the book is just delightful -- it's satirical, it's funny in some spots, and a bit poignant here and there, but just enough so that it doesn't get sappy.  Hag-Seed, is of course, one more offering from the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and this time around, Margaret Atwood takes on The Tempest. I think she's done a great job with it.

This novel follows the follies and foibles of Felix Phillips, the ousted artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival who has been removed from his position as top dog by some conniving manipulation by his trusted assistant. [As just a small aside, I recently read an article in the New Yorker which identifies Makeshiweg as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival  -- not being from Canada, I had no clue. But that's just my little nod to the Stratford Shakespeare festival; knowing that little factoid or not knowing it before reading it doesn't really make a difference. ]  Anyway, going into his own form of exile, he reappears some years later as a teacher in a prison where certain inmates are allowed to attend a literacy course where they study different types of literature. Felix decides to not only teach them Shakespeare, but also to allow the inmates to put on plays based on the Bard's work. This time around it's The Tempest, which was the production he was going to put on at the time he got booted out of the festival.  Some twelve years later now, Felix realizes that the play would be a great vehicle through which he can have his revenge on all of the people who had worked behind his back to depose him, since he's learned that they're coming to the prison to see the play before they decide to take away the funding for the literacy program.  

So many people have written about this book, professional critics and casual reader people such as myself, so I won't go any further than that little appetite whetter of a synopsis.  What I will say is that while I loved the central thematic idea here of different types of prisons, a lot of other things crop us here as well: loss and grief, redemption, and the healing power of art, to name only a few. It's a lovely book, funny and tragic at the same time, and a joy to read from beginning to end. I suppose it might have Shakespearean purists foaming at the mouth with indignance, but pish-posh on that. I loved it. 

It's a fine book and you don't even need to be familiar with the play prior to reading the novel, since Atwood includes a lovely summary at the end. Highly, highly recommended. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

September books, digested

So many books, so little time to talk about them.  Whirlwind trip through this month's books:

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang:  damn, I loved this book!  More to follow on this one, but it will definitely be on my 2016 favorites list

The Honeymoon, by Dinitia Smith:  September's real-world book group read. Sorry, but I wasn't over the moon about this book -- to me it just flat-out  lacked depth. My book group was split on this one, but we did have a great discussion about George Eliot.

The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson -- from Salt Publishing; I liked it much better after the second read. Haven't posted about this one, but definitely recommended. Reminds me so much of Angela Carter's story "The Bloody Chamber," and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


dark fiction/horror/weird fiction and everything else that falls in this category:

The Dark Domain, by Stefan Grabinski : more to follow about this one after I read his The Motion Demon, but I loved it.

Strange Medicine, by Mike Russell : I love Mike Russell's work. He's just so out there it's an actual pleasure to lose myself in his stories.

Eltonsbrody, by Edgar Mittelholzer -- Barbados, a creepy old house on a cliff and lots of chills -- what more can you ask for? By one of my favorite Caribbean novelists

All Souls' Night: Stories by Hugh Walpole:  Collection of supernatural/other stories by Hugh Walpole, released by Valancourt Books.  Fun.

Night-Pieces, by Thomas Burke. Another Valancourt edition; lots of good stuff.


crime fiction
The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin:  shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize -- intense mystery at its core; one of the most literary crime novels I've ever encountered. Great read.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara - a true conundrum of a mystery and another good book from Pushkin Vertigo.


Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips: reveals "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" in the US -- a must read

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: -- after season two of Narcos, I had to know what was really going on in Colombia at the time -- another fine book that kept me on the edge of my seat.

and now, for October...

Aside from a few must-reads, October is dedicated to creepy books just perfect for Halloween,  so most of the action will be taking place over at oddly weird fiction.  Pop on in!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hystopia, by David Means

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
336 pp


"Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too."

There is this wonderful scene on page 154 of this novel, which is actually a book within a book, where one of the characters has a vision where she hears a dead boyfriend saying the following:
" I wonder who's going to tell the story, Meg? Nothing else to say. You see, you had to be here and you weren't. You know the one that goes: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How many? You fucking don't know because you weren't there, man."
And therein lies the irony of this novel -- in Hystopia, thanks to an initiative put into practice by the third Kennedy administration to help wipe out the traumatic memories of Vietnam vets, those who were there don't remember much more than those who'd never set foot in Vietnam.

If you read this book carefully, Hystopia reveals the inner turmoil of a very young man, Eugene Allen, who has recently returned from Vietnam at the time of the novel's writing. According to one of  the people interviewed at the end of the book-within-a-book, "He went over and served and came back and started right to work on his book," his "typewriter going day and night."  Allen, who is trying to cope with both the trauma of the war and his own personal pain originating more close to home, has framed Hystopia as a rather surreal, dystopian novel in which the action takes place in an America where Kennedy has successfully dodged a number of assassination attempts and has made it to his third term in office.  Kennedy has created an agency called Psych Corps, which would "solve the problem of mental illness in general and the vast horde of returning vets in particular," and under the auspices of this group, the process of "enfolding" occurs.  Veterans have to relive/reenact the particular "causal events" of the experiences leading to their trauma, which, along with the drug Tripizoid, leads to a sort of amnesiac state -- while they know they were in the army and  that there was some causal event, these people only retain actual memories of things up to that point, and then of what happened afterward.  What's left if all goes well is their story, which is the final step in the cure.  But here's the catch: enfolding doesn't always work -- especially on vets who have been too psychologically damaged for treatment to do any good.  While some of these beyond-help vets  "roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and re-enacting atrocities on civilians,"  one of these failed enfolds, a fellow called Rake who "had very little to go back to" at the end of the war,  is "going around taking perfectly cured individuals and returning them to their traumatized states."  The Rake situation just can't be tolerated, so the Psych Corps gets involved in trying to stop him.

But of course, the story is not so simple as it seems to be on the surface. There is a LOT going on here that really captured my attention. For one thing,   in this book successfully-enfolded vets are meant to be sent back into action, implying that this government administration has no real interest in ending the war at all. Even worse, it can't or won't step up to the plate and admit its mistake in getting involved in Vietnam in the first place. There is a great little scene near the beginning of this  novel where one member of Psych Corps explains to another that
"...history misses the point. Take the Somme, for example. The Big Fuck-up. I mean it was called that when it was happening. You had something like sixty thousand lads -- and they were lads -- die in the first day of battle. That battle cut the world in two. It introduced pure irony into the world, but do historians mention it? Hell no. Are we willing to call Nam the Little Fuck-Up? Christ no. The president keeps her rolling and decides to make a repository for irony..."
To me, the novel reads like an examination into the role of history/memory both in terms of self and on a larger, national scale.  Historical amnesia, remaking/rewriting/bending history are all found here, as is the effect of "enfolding" on a personal level, since many of the characters in this book discover a need to "unfold" -- to regain and reach down into those memories before they can make any real internal progress.  The dilemma is that, as one character puts it, while "You feel good and clean with the trauma put away, but at the same time you want to know what really happened," which can often be destructive.  Obviously, there's much more here; I haven't even begun to scratch this novel's surface.  One more important thing that may help in trying to understand this book: in a 2010 article in Paris Review, Means notes that
 " If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode."
which is most certainly the case and certainly appropriate in this book.

 Aside from some things that sort of bogged this book down and interrupted the reading flow, I couldn't stop thinking about this novel after finishing it, and I think a second reading is definitely in the cards. There are some incredible moments here, especially in a section of about 15 pages  (154-169) with some of the most powerful writing I've read in a very long time.  Hystopia may be framed as an alternative history, but I think there's a good reason for doing it this way.  And once again, I see I am swimming upstream of other readers in terms of really liking this book, but it is what it is. I would without hesitation recommend this novel -- it's certainly unlike anything I've read before. Well done.