22 July 2010

Reading diary: January 2010

I have a very fast turnover of books. What I opened today is gone tomorrow. I usually list them in BookMooch, a book swapping site, leaving only special books behind. I'm posting a summary of my 2010  reading list by month, as I can't review everything that I read.

Most of my descriptions here are previously posted from my reviews in Shelfari and LibraryThing. I've read a total of seven books in January. Most were short books, what I'd call my "comfort books" or books with 200 pages or less. I always rely on these fast reads. They are my junk food. Sometimes the slimmer the spine, the longer it takes for me to finish it. I don't rush reading short books, especially since the end of the page is always in sight.


1. Ghosts by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

In Argentina, male ghosts haunt a newly built condominium. It is New Year's Eve. The ghosts are preparing a party while upstairs the living (the caretaker's family and their relatives-guests) are celebrating and feasting. There's a silent co-existence between them. But for the very first time, the ghosts are trying to communicate something to the living. What happened in the end will make you scratch your head.

The insidious power of this book convinced me that I need to collect all of Aira in English. Oh yes, I will! The great news is that Aira is a prolific writer, and by prolific I mean dozens of books waiting to be translated by the likes of Chris Andrews. Better to start collecting early when there are only a handful of his novels available. What an auspicious start of my reading for the year.

2. Better by Atul Gawande

As a matter of policy, I don't read self-help books. They depress me and make me all the more helpless. But this one is different. Engaging and lively and uplifting. It may be about medical science and the ethical issues doctors confront in the practice of their profession, but the book is tailored for the general reader.

In three chapters (Diligence, Doing Right, Ingenuity), Dr. Gawande argues for the need to perform well and to do better, to be a "positive deviant," even if you feel you are just a cog in the wheel. This book can be therapeutic. It can make you feel good or, like me, feel better.

3. Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum

"Yet when we look back on the darkness that obscures the path that brought us this far, we only come up with another indefinite 'maybe.' The only thing we perceive with any clarity is the present moment, and even that just passes by." ... I like the sentimental lyricism in this book. Pinball is Murakami's second book and it's a bit better than his debut, Hear the Wind Sing, which I read last year. I've read the pdf which is readily available online, but I have since acquired my own copy. The booklet has just been reprinted by Kodansha, available in Amazon Japan and ebay at more reasonable prices than the limited first edition. This book, like the first one, is full of references to music. The soundtrack is also available online.

4. A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum

A quantum leap. I never expected the book to maintain its silliness with a straight face. This culmination of the Trilogy of the Rat is a well-executed puzzle.

The question must be asked. Since this is the third book in the trilogy, does one need to read the first two books (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973) in order to appreciate this one. Well, not really. I must say that this is almost a self-contained book.

Another question may cross the reader's mind. Since Murakami practically prohibited the publication outside Japan of his first two books, are they still worth reading? Of course. They give background stories to the main characters in A Wild Sheep Chase.

5. Loving Sabotage by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Andrew Wilson

Short but potent novel that is partly about communism in China, partly about the barbaric potentials of an international troop of soldiers.

Told from the point of view of a brave soldier amid a brutal and unforgiving war, this short novel brings to mind the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Only the soldier happens to be a nasty little girl in pigtails. Hilarious book. Chock-full of LOLs. With occasional tears in the eyes (brought about by LOLs). Unforgettable (on account of LOLs).

6. Mon by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Francis Mathy

Zen-like beauty. At the start, exquisite sadness and pain. Characters struggle for peace of mind, trying to escape the jaded feelings they have been harboring for so long. In the end a sense of life affirmation, of renewal, regeneration. If you're into Buddhism, meditation, asceticism, finding the path, and other new age blahs.

Mon is, for me, better than Kokoro. I have a feeling that every book that Sōseki wrote is a sad or bittersweet book. Maybe except for Botchan, but I still have to read that one. I also have a feeling that Sōseki will be my favorite Japanese novelist. My impressions halfway through the book are a classic case in judging too much too early. The second half is more ruminative, more contemplative, and (I'd like to believe) redemptive. Sōseki remains my most favorite Japanese novelist.

7. Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Eliot Weinberger

This book is fantastic. A transcription of Borges lectures originally delivered in Buenos Aires. Lit-crit without the academic pom-poms. Playful takes on seven subjects: Dante's Commedia, dreams and nightmares, the endless pleasures of The Thousand and One Nights, Buddhism, poetry, the Kabbalah, and blindness. I imagine myself attending these lectures (in English) and turning the ideas over in my mind before going to sleep. Perhaps I will sleep peacefully knowing that the next night's lecture will be another food for the mind. Or I can't sleep at all anticipating the next lecture. Or I will be visited by fearful nightmares of mirrors, of closed rooms, of the inferno. There's no question that literature for Borges is like religion. Reading for him is an act of miracle. He is a blind man who sees.


  1. Whooaa there reader, slow down to savour books.
    Realise that you are young and have a life-time's reading ahead of you. It's not a consumer race to devour all the sweets in the shop at once ! But seriously as you begin to critically discriminate the worthwhile from the dross there will be far less to read.

    I must admit though I would be sleepless at the idea of attending a Borges lecture, and would find it hard to restrain myself from devouring his words. The word is bibliophile, one is devoted if people respect one and obsessive if they do not!

  2. I had an almost identical reaction to Aira - more, please, more, more. And this is based on, at this point, three tiny novels. I wrote just a bit about An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

  3. Hydriotaphia:
    *laughs* I read slower now than when I was in university poring over books like there’s no future.

    Of course, Borges’ voice (booming, I assume) will be great sedative. I will hang on to every word like an emperor before the oracle at Delphi.

  4. Amateur Reader:
    I wonder how Aira sustains a longer work. My theory is that his tiny novels represent artistic gestation that was just about nipped at the pinnacle. It’s as if the endings were deliberate resistance to more epiphanies. I'm with you. Translators, descend on Aira!

  5. Finally got around to reading Aira's Ghosts. I can now see why you were so excited about it, holy moly!

  6. Talk about perfect timing for this book, Richard. Then again, beginning an Aira novella is like celebrating new year, having a clean slate, starting from scratch.