Wednesday, May 30, 2012

WWW Wednesdays (May 30)

So I don't seem to space out the timing of my posts very well.  Whatever... Time for WWW Wednesdays! (Hosted by Should be Reading)

What are you currently reading?
Right now I'm reading "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski  I'm only about 50 pages in and though I have some issues with the frame narrator (Does every book written in the 90s have to have a slacker protagonist?) it's one of the most engaging books I've read for a while and I have a feeling it could take a twist at any point so I'm crossing my fingers that the frame narrator will turn out more interesting than he first appears.

What did you recently finish reading?
"Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino.  The review will be shortly forthcoming but the book was as brilliant as I hoped it would be.

What do you think you'll read next?
Probably "The Crying of Lot 49" by Thomas Pychon.  I've been wanting to read a Pychon book for a while and "The Crying of Lot 49" seems like the most sensible place to get a taste.  After that, I think I'll take a break from the post modern but I haven't decided on a book yet.

"The Setting Sun" by Osamu Dazai

            I like the fantastic, I like the surreal, and lately I’ve found myself drawn towards reading a lot of this type of fiction.  In order to continue enjoying the weird, however, I find I need to occasionally take a break and read something realistic.  Nothing is magical if everything is magical.  This is where “The Setting Sun” by Osamu Dazai comes in.

            Let’s look at some facts surrounding this book:
Osamu Dazai: a cheerful bloke
  1. Written in Japan
  2. In 1947
  3. Two years after the end of WWII
  4. By an author who, to this day, is very popular in his home country
  5. He also successfully committed suicide
  6. In 1948
  7. This was at least his fourth suicide attempt

            Unsurprisingly, this was not a cheerful book.  It was a fascinating look into the decline of individuals, a family, an era.  It’s much more than a simple family drama, however.  It’s a crisis, sometimes subtle lurking just beneath the characters’ words and sometimes overt and existential.  Society is breaking and those who have based their whole lives around its existence are also fracturing. It’s a deeply emotional work yet it fortunately never crosses the boundary into melodramatic.

            The cultural barriers this book poses to a western audience, myself included, cannot go unnoted.  Aside from the first 200 pages of “Battle Royale,” this is the first Japanese novel I’ve read though, even with my limited experience in the world of Japanese literature, it was actually quite accessible.  I was at times rather bothered by the naivety and helplessness the female characters displayed throughout the book, but to make the claim of misogyny would be unfair since the male characters, though in very different ways, were equally as flawed.  As for the translation, I was reading Donald Keene’s version which I believe is the only English translation available.  I found it to be very crisp and clear though there were occasionally some word choices, such as some outdated colloquial phrases, that felt out of place.  Though I imagine the prose was likely better in Japanese, the translation is more than serviceable

            Dazai has written a stunning book that, 60 years later and an ocean and a language away, is still powerful.  The building desperation of the characters is captivating and the novel’s latter half is especially brilliant.  To my knowledge, “The Setting Sun” has never achieved widespread popularity in the English-speaking world which is a shame since it’s truly a great work.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter

            When I posted on my Goodreads account that I was reading the short story collection “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter, one of my friends commented, and I quote, “lol you would read something like this (if the title gives any clue).”  I find this comment disturbing.  Very disturbing.  It is, however, with relief tinged regret that I must say she was wrong.  “The Bloody Chamber” wasn’t really for me.

           Don’t think this conclusion is some sort of knee jerk reaction against her comment either.  Truth be told, I really wanted to like this book.  A professor for a class in magical realism I took compiled a massive list at the end of the semester of recommended reading.  I picked up “The Bloody Chamber,” among other books, off of his recommendation.

            And I can see why he recommended it.  The book in many ways is excellent.  It’s an assortment of re-imagined fairy tales from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Little Red Riding Hood.”  These aren’t the Disney, child friendly adaptations either.  It’s graphic, both violently and sexually, though it never feels gratuitous.  Instead, these aspects serve to make these tales more relevant to modern life and values in addition to being an integral part to some of the feminist undertones that pervade the book.  Feminism often gets a bad wrap, but I feel in this collection it’s handled tastefully in the sense that men are not demonized but rather women are empowered.

            The most notable aspect of the book is the breathtaking prose.  At many points I felt like I was reading a raunchier Edgar Allan Poe.  Though it was written in the 1970s the prose feels much older and richer than many books written during that era.  Here’s a sentence taken at random:
“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”
The whole book flows with that type of vivid complexity of description.  Each sentence is beautifully crafted and is very effective in creating a tangle of atmosphere and tension.

            The problem comes in, however, when that tension breaks.  It feels wrong to criticize a book of re-imagined fairy tales for their plot, but the mastery with which Carter handles the build up and climaxes of these stories is absent from most of the resolutions.  Often ending abruptly or with a broad overview of the future for the characters that is jarring after the slow pace of the rest of the story, it left me unsatisfied after an otherwise wonderful story telling experience.

            Otherwise, this collection has everything going for it, which is why it puzzles me that, all in all, I didn’t love this book.  I didn’t hate it either.  I appreciated Carter’s story telling ability but I found myself many times flipping to the back of the book to see how many pages I had left.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for a primarily plot driven book.  Perhaps reading a short story collection on a plane ride isn’t a good idea.  Perhaps just coming off the stress of finals I should have picked up a lighter read.  But despite my only mild enjoyment of this collection, I really don’t think it’s deserving of a negative review.  In fact I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants engaging stories woven with fantastic prose.  As for my personal favorite story in this collection, I’ll have to go with “Puss-in-Boots” which, largely due to being told from the point of view of the cat Puss himself, is hilarious.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays "The Bloody Chamber"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

180px-BloodyChamber.jpgI've been away for a while but now that summer is here I'll be updating regularly once again.  We'll start out with a Teaser Tuesday.  Technically I finished this book, "The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter, last night but the prose is so rich it would be a shame to let technicalities prevent me from sharing a quote from it. I'll be posting a full review within the next few days but suffice to say it's the prose that really carries this slim collection of creepy, re-imagined fairy tales.  Regarding wolves:
"They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths, grey members of a congregation of nightmare; hark! his long, wavering howl . . . an aria of fear made audible.
The wolfsong is the sound of the rending you will suffer, in itself a murdering." ("The Bloody Chamber," 110)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It's April and You Know What that Means...

A 2011 books read recap!  Am I ridiculously behind? Yes. Is this something I have have time to dwell on? Nope.  So without further ado or explanation I'm going to jump into my top ten favorite books read last year.  In no particular order:

"Survivor" by Chuck Palahnuik
Funny, insightful, horribly crass: this book won my heart for it's shear strangeness and over the top nature.  After having recently read "Fight Club" and really disliking it I wonder if this novel was really as great as I remember but I'm going to go with my gut and say yes.  If you're looking for a weird, interesting, easy read go no further.

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
A classic in both science fiction and the broader world of literature, a lot can be taken from Huxley's dystopian vision.  For those who haven't seen it yet, this comic does a nice job relating this book to our current world.  Social messages aside it's an engaging, well written novel that will leave you thinking.

"Light Boxes" by Shane Jones
Rarely do you encounter a novel that is simultaneously as unambitious in scope and as engagingly written as this slim volume.  It's a pretty straightforward allegory for Seasonal Affective Disorder that due to Jones' mastery of language becomes a beautiful little treat even if you've never heard of SAD before (I read it in March cowering inside trying to escape the 90 degree heat.)

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a sprawling masterpiece filled with enough magic to make you feel like a child again even as you read through Marquez's complex and entangling sentences.  The cast of characters, both strong and weak, spiteful and noble, genius and ignorant, are some of the best to ever appear in fiction.  I could go on praising it for quite awhile so I'm going to cut myself off and say if you have any interest in literature this is a must read.

"White Noise" by Don DeLillo
Darkly funny social satire, when done right, is probably my favorite type of writing so it's no wonder I liked this book so much.  Of the four DeLillo books I've read this is definitely the best.  It's cynical, humorous, often a bit ridiculous, and definitely not for everyone, but those who'll enjoy it at all will really love it.

"Point Omega" by Don DeLillo
Drastically different than "White Noise" it's often hard to tell this is written by the same person. "Point Omega" is more than a little pretentious but the core part of the novel, set in the desert and full of musings on the nature of time, had more of an effect of me than 99 percent of the books I read.  Its magic is not something I can really explain but I was completely lost within its scant 100 some pages.

"Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges will bend your mind.  His prose (or at least the translation) leaves something to be desired but his ideas more than make up for any shortcomings.  His philosophical ideas masquerading as short stories are easily the most interesting pieces I read all year.

"Eating the Dinosaur" by Chuck Klosterman
I like pop culture and I like to pretend it's important.  I even like to think that maybe it holds some universal truths.  Klosterman seems to be in the same boat.  His essays are interesting quick reads that embrace the trivial while at the same time never shy away from the big picture.

"By Night in Chile" by Roberto Bolano
Bolano is a master of prose and that shines through even in this translation.  I'm sure a lot of this eerie, morally ambiguous story went over my head but it was nonetheless powerful.  I plan to read more Bolano this year so maybe I'll have some better insights soon.  Regardless, this was a great first taste.

"Autobiography of Red" by Anne Carson
It's a poem, it's a novel, it's fantastic.  Carson has a way with words that drives this unconventional "novel in verse" from mythology to homosexuality to Latin America to volcanoes. There's a lot of disparate pieces that come together both beautifully and seamlessly in this vastly under-appreciated book.