03 December 2011

Reading diary: October to November 2011

Eight books read in October (half of them graphic fiction) and five books in November, with reviews also appearing in my accounts in LibraryThing, Shelfari, and Goodreads. I read four books for the just concluded German Literature Month. Links to my previous reading lists this year – 1st quarter, 2nd quarter, 3rd quarter.


44. Pan by Knut Hamsun, trans. James W. McFarlane

Pan (1894) is a lyrical expression of man's inner nature. The forest teems with the beauty of the natural world and Knut Hamsun is too wise not to use it for his own ends. The novel fairly anticipates the sensuous and erotic works of D. H. Lawrence and the spiritual confessions of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ostensibly the journal entries of a soldier hunter who inhabited a hut in the woods of a rural community, the short novel otherwise relies on various storytelling registers—folktales, legends, testimonies, monologues, daydreams, prose poetry.

Hamsun depicts a fierce battle of the sexes, a battle to the end between the narrator, Lieutenant Glahn (a man with an irresistible "animal look"), and his object of love, the fickle beauty Edvarda. Despite their obvious passionate feelings for each other, they enact a savage choreography of power and dominance. Each one will not yield submission to the other.

The novel proceeds in swift chapters, each mostly running for two or three pages. Glahn's journal tells of his hermit-like existence in the woods and of his intimate relationship with Edvarda, in a voice that at first is romantic and then becomes more and more vindictive and vicious. Its language is incantatory, as if delivering poetry reading after poetry reading on the subject of mountain, sea, forest, moon, birds, and beasts. Hamsun's achievement is in portraying extreme and conflicting psychological states in one man and one woman—compassion-cruelty, love-rage, reason-madness, intelligence-delusion.

In James W. McFarlane's translation from Norwegian, it is a rousing mad poem of love sickness.

   I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.
   After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. "It is the moon," I say softly and passionately, "it is the moon!" And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble—God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.
(p. 107)

45. Bad Nature by Javier Marías, trans. Esther Allen

This is my second read of this short story which was published as part of the New Directions Pearls series. It first appeared in Granta 66.

Elvis Presley is shooting a movie in Mexico and needs a Spanish interpreter so he can deliver the lines with a convincing accent. This appeal to 'authenticity', to a perfect and accurate delivery of the lines, is the very theme that the Spanish novelist Javier Marías explores here, in condensed form, and elsewhere in his other works of fiction.

Ruibérriz (aka Roy Berry) is the man who fills the job of interpreter adequately. That is, until the Elvis contingent gets waylaid in a bar full of gangsters. The exchange of insults between two parties, mediated by the poor interpreter, is only one among many happening in the real world. These conflicts could be the result of cultural differences, prejudices, and intolerance of 'the other'. At any rate, the role of the translator cannot be discounted in a world of perpetual wars.

46. Trese: Last Seen After Midnight by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo (review)

Trese is a graphic series based on reworkings of stories from the Philippine "lower mythology". The heroine, Alexandra Trese, battles it out against some of the mystical and mythical villains and figures from Filipino pop culture. "Last Seen After Midnight" is the fourth installment in the series. Inked in noir-like black and white art, it's a restrained and well written quartet of stories in the genre supernatural crimes and mysteries.

47-49. Maoh: Juvenile Remix, Volumes 01, 02, and 03 by Kotaro Isaka and Megumi Osuga, trans. Stephen Paul

I'm hooked on this series, which by the third volume ends with a cliffhanger. But I learned there are already 10 volumes in the series (and possibly more coming!).

The "juvenile" in the title refers to the main character Ando, an orphan who discovered he had the power of ventriloquism -- he can make other people speak things he want to say. The potential enemy is the charismatic Inukai, head of a vigilante group called Grasshopper. Inukai, self-proclaimed savior, wants to take over the whole Nekota City and save it from rapid urbanization. He marks as enemies businessmen, urban developers, investors, and mall owners. He wants to prevent the city from being overtaken by impersonal capitalism and commercialization. A valid enough cause, but his methods of violence against paid criminal gangs and goons are questionable. Our good-natured teen Ando, who is just learning to use his power, sees something sinister in Inukai's grand plan. Will he be able to stop him?

50. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky (review

The novel is a tale of a house by the lake in a German woodland area. The main character is Time, who predictably moonlights as Death. Other characters include History and Memory. The page count is small, but the technique is dense with innovative manipulations of language. The story – there's no story – covers a century of racial abuses and prejudices. The plot is linear enough but the delivery is sophisticated. It drives home the point that all human beings are dispensable. The theme and style will remind one of the midsection of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the cruel chapter called "Time Passes". That is precisely what the main character does in the novel. He passes. The narrative proceeds in bursts of prose poetry. It holds a candle to the accumulation of private and public memories.

51. The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll, trans. Breon Mitchell (review)

According to W. G. Sebald, in On the Natural History of Destruction, this novel by Heinrich Böll was one of only a handful of postwar novels that depicted the intensive carpet bombing leveled against Germany in the second world war. Though written early in Böll's career, the novel however was not published in his lifetime due to the subject matter. The publishers thought it was not appropriate to dwell on such a topic. After a long war, is it not perhaps best to move on to cheery stories?

Böll described the ruins and rubble of wartime Germany right after the end of the bombings. Amid this wasted landscape the characters moved like zombies, traumatized by their experiences. They lived only to survive hunger, scrounging for the rare bread and provisions that came at high prices. The centerpiece of the story was a love story and a subplot of a family drama. Böll was able to illuminate a time that was barely recorded, even consciously avoided according to Sebald, erased from memory, sanitized and repressed by German writers. It was not a popular subject but it was necessary to keep a record of destruction of cities and its effects on men and women.


52. The Shooting Gallery by Tsushima Yūko, trans. Geraldine Harcourt (review)

Tsushima Yūko (b. 1947) is known as the daughter of the Japanese novelist Dazai Osamu who committed suicide when she was one year old. She's an accomplished writer herself, having won several prestigious literary awards in Japan. The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories about modern women, the difficulties they experience in the face of divorce or family pressures, and their search for freedom. Tsushima portrays single mothers and separated women with a generous sympathy.

53. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll, trans. Leila Vennewitz (review)

Originally published in German in 1974, this short novel explicitly dealt with the modern dilemmas of the individual that Franz Kafka stipulated in The Trial. The apparent illusion of liberty was manifest in the gradual ruin of Katharina Blum's reputation and the invasion of her privacy, by the press and by the state. The issues raised by Heinrich Böll, in a thinly disguised satirical voice, were today still "newsworthy".

One morning Katharina Blum was brought in for questioning by the police. She was involved with a man who stayed in her place the previous night. The man was accused of murder, most wanted by the authorities, and by all indications, it looked like she helped him escape the police stakeout around her place. At the outset this looked like a simple crime investigation, but Heinrich Böll framed a narrative about the willful distortions of the truth to sensationalize a piece of news. It's a lethal piece of writing that questioned the absolute freedom granted to press. Böll sought to question the extreme application of freedom of the press in his depiction of a woman held hostage by the media's manipulation of truth. I think only a few radical writers could get away with a controversial subject like this. Böll was one of these writers who grappled with human institutions and systems and developed a prognosis on the fallibility of that system to protect human rights. He was spot on in describing the helplessness of the individual amid an onslaught of lies and deceptions broadcast on the news.

54. Night Fish by Kristine Ong Muslim (review)

Night Fish is a 13-poem chapbook written in the language of a hypothetical (future) reality. It opens with the title poem, submerging the reader in a world without landmass. Everything that once stood on high ground is reduced to the level of the sea. Despite the uncertainties accompanying a watery life, humans learn to adapt (“Everyone will learn to paddle towards the nonexistent shores.”) and form an aquatic community, an emergent race of water people. Kristine Ong Muslim, the poet behind these lines, has imagined an alternate environmental habitat in which sea level rise is the state of nature and adaptation to an extreme environment is the way of life: "The sound of oars cutting the water clean will be the most familiar sound in the universe."

55. Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, illus. Josef Scharl (review)

Rock Crystal: A Christmas Tale by the Bohemian-born Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was a novella marked by purity of prose, naturalism, and portents. It was first published in the original German in 1843, and appeared in translation, by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore, a century later (1945). Despite the onset of holiday cheer that pervaded the start of the tale, the reader could detect that something would go wrong.

In the long opening of the book, a slow sequence of scenes gradually expanded to contain the traditional Christmas festivities, culture, natural cycles, social structure, and topography of the village of Gschaid and its neighboring village of Millsdorf. The way the passage culminated on the fact of the dead staying at home for the long winter signalled a dark tone to the fable-like simplicity of the tale. The landscape and mountain communities were exquisitely evoked in sinuous sentences. 

56. Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

An investigative report about life in the German Democratic Republic prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The true stories of common people seemed to come straight out of the Orwell's dystopia. It's a topic that still resonates today, given the totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that were toppled right and left. The style of the book was far from dry journalistic report. It read very much like a novel. The portraits of people in it were well drawn and their experiences very immediate and harrowing. A very human book. I will post a longer review of this book.

Reading plans for December:

I started The Savage Detectives for next month's group reading with Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and 13 (as of last count) readers. I'm almost done with Part I, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975)".

I finished reading a dozen superb stories by Machado de Assis for Amateur Reader's Wuthering Expectations Portuguese Literature Challenge.

I also started two works of nonfiction and may further read a poetry chapbook.


  1. interesting selection of books. have that anna funder book at home but not yet looked at. i will now.

  2. Stasiland must be one of my favorite nonfiction this year. Funder also has a feel for language that makes her writing affecting.

  3. A fantastic library of books here, particularly am interested in The Shooting Gallery & Stasiland.

  4. I've read 'Stasiland' a couple of times, and I love it. I read (and reviewed) Funder's debut novel earlier this year, and it was good but not great - I wasn't the only one to wonder why she'd moved to fiction...

    Still haven't got around to 'Visitation' yet (even though it was on my German Literature Month list!). Maybe this month ;)

  5. Gary, you can't go wrong with those two titles. I think there's no book I didn't like in the past two months. Made a lot of new discoveries too. Eight new writers read for the first time.

    Tony, I read a review copy of 'Stasiland' so will post a longer review later. It's certainly a wonderful piece of writing. It lingers in the mind still. As do 'Visitation'.

  6. Looks like a list of powerhouse books is written here. I might consider reading a couple of them when I have time.
    my blog: pinoy pick up lines

  7. Thanks for stopping by, earningman. Will appreciate any feedback you'll have on the books you'd eventually try.

  8. thanks Rise! Done reading with The Shooting Gallery by Tsushima Yūko! Epic! :)
    best pick up lines
    romantic pick up lines