Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

October 10, 2010

Reading diary: July 2010




One of the reading challenges I happily signed up for this year is The Fourth Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. My interest in Japanese writing is peaking this year. I only ever started reading Japanese writers in earnest last year. Since then, I've steadily read and collected a lot of Japanese books that occupy a large space in my shelf and will occupy my leisure time in the coming days. The only genre in fiction that can compete with this long-term reading of mine is writing from Latin America.


JULY 2010

39. A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni




A catalog of bad persons and their wrongdoings. Entertaining and funny, and sometimes scary. There are many novels inside this encyclopedia novel. The tradition of writing down personal histories in compressed form (vignettes), popularized here by Borges, clearly extends to contemporary writers. Cases in point: Nazi Literature in the Americas and Written Lives. I detect a representation of multifaceted evil and/or quirkiness in small doses.


40. Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki Junichirō, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker




From my review: Kaname and Misako, husband and wife, couldn't bear their relationship anymore. They decided to separate. Misako fell in love with another man; and Kaname, feeling no attachment to his wife, condoned it. Both agreed they need to divorce each other. . . . Tanizaki's novel would have been ordinary soap opera material had it not been for his masterly use of details. His depiction of insular world of puppet plays, of geishas and mistresses, and of the contrasting refinements in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, [places] the story into a cultural context and in a dramatic light that sublimates all the tension and conflict into a dizzying calmness. The characters are so precise in their barbaric gentleness. They move with the grace of the bourgeoisie, but their inner identity crises are just as crude as modern humanity's.


41. Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco




The puzzle fragments of this novel, like the famed Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, form an island chain of experiences and consciousness. The sequence is filtered through several narrative ecosystems: immigrant experiences, colonialism, cultural diffusion, literary questionings, historical deficits, and failures of identity. At the center of Ilustrado are two writers struggling with their own demons.

It was a pleasure to read this novel from its strong prologue to the multiplicity of excerpts and "excerpts within excerpts." Miguel Syjuco reinvigorated Filipino writing with experimental possibilities. The ending forces one to question the power granted to storytellers. Syjuco's manipulative skills are impressive. I hope his follow up book will not be a long time coming.


42. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond




It's amusing to read the slew of negative reviews in Amazon. It's hardly surprising though, given the subject matter of the book and its revolutionary approach to the interpretation of history. Prof. Diamond presents his case well that I think some of the debated quotes in the reviews were taken out of context, or were taken as absolutes. I can imagine why some arguments are controversial. They're not always politically correct and often run against conventional knowledge. Prof. Diamond is talking about the origin of "races," why some are more affluent than others and why some are not destined to prosper. His central argument is quite basic: environment, not race, is the main determinant of success of societies. Very humane and obvious but still debatable. What is impressive is the wealth of evidence presented and the manner in which they are analyzed. The environmental approach to history can run the risk of the "comprehensive syndrome," i.e., too detailed and sweeping and long, that it sometimes reads like a chore. I read it on and off for almost a year. It was like attending a course in ecology. On the strength of this book, I'd likely attend more lectures by Prof. Diamond through his other books.


43. Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, trans. Anne McLean




False novels - that favored blend of fact and fiction and self-reference - are easily becoming a popular genre in Latin American writing. Along with authors I've been reading a lot (César Aira, Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño), Javier Cercas is one of its best practitioners. Soldiers of Salamis is a cleverly structured treatise on memory and narrative direction. Its experimental elements hark back to the whimsical device of the playful author of the Quixote.


44. Norwegian Wood I by Murakami Haruki, trans. Alfred Birnbaum




The "red book" is the first of two small volumes of Norwegian Wood published by Kodansha. Norwergian Wood is one of the most popular and widely read books of Murakami, in Japan or elsewhere. The story tells of a pair of young lovers trying to deal with their painful past. My first impressions border between boredom and irritation. I didn't find much to admire in the slow unfolding (plodding) of the plot. The writing style, at least in this first-half, is pedestrian and dry. It made me think that perhaps I prefer the sci-fi side of Murakami. By the second volume, the story starts to pick up momentum with some interesting characters popping in. In fact, the second volume completely redeemed the story for me. But I'm jumping ahead.


45. Death in Midsummer by Mishima Yukio, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker, Ivan Morris, Donald Keene, and Geoffrey W. Sargent




It's a compilation meant to showcase the full range of Mishima's themes. Not a greatest hits collection of stories, but the handful of precious jewels makes it a worthwhile read. Three or four stories deserve the highest rating. One story called "Patriotism" particularly makes one squirm with a graphic tale of suicide. It's one of the best books I've read this year. Mishima defies my expectations. He is a real find.

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