Inspiration

I am *finally* reading If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. This is one of those books that I knew I’d love from the moment I heard about it. Fortunately, I haven’t been disappointed. Phelps Lake

Inspired by the title poem, and a recent trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I sat down and wrote a poem of my own:

Long summer days

So many hours in the hot sun

Burning skin

Until refuge is taken in the shadow of a mountain

If not, winter

With its crisp icy beauty

Broken by the crunch of our feet in the snow

Cold puffs of hot breath

Anticipating your hands

Building a fire

The Land of Green Plums

Happy Halloween!

You know what ‘s really scary? How much I’ve neglected my blog. But I’m back!

On to a quickie review:

The Land of Green Plums
Herat Müller

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I’ve been wanting to read something by Herta Müller since she won the Nobel Prize in 2009. I bought this book at least a year ago, and finally got around to it.

The book is about a group of young people growing up in Romania under the communist Ceausescu regime. Much of the narrative is veiled and indirectly stated, much like the coded letters the narrator sends her three friends.

They are under suspicion of something – what is not exactly clear. That’s the point, though. No one is safe, any stray word or joke pointed at the wrong person or interest in anything not sanctioned by the state meant you could be hauled in for questioning – or worse – at any time. Applying for a passport to leave the county was like playing Russian roulette. An “accident” might befall you when you were on the train, or at your hotel, or…

My copy of the novel comes with the text if Müller’s Nobel Prize lecture. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Some favorite quotes:

“No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it’s being watched.”

“We looked for things that would set us apart because we read books.”

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

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Ok, bear with me. I’m writing this from my phone, because I am currently internet-less. Which is fitting for this review, because I read most of this book on my phone.

Thursday night I couldn’t sleep, so I downloaded this short story collection to my nook app. I read about half of it before I was able to fall back asleep. I then finished it over the weekend in moments stolen out of my taskmaster-husband’s line of sight. We were moving over the weekend, hopefully for the last time EVER. The house is great, and we’re excited to work on some projects and (eventually) make it totally perfect for us 😀

On to the book!

Gao Xingjian is Chinese by birth, currently living in France. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. This short story collection has six stories. I thoroughly enjoyed the first four. The were short, beautifully written vignettes dealing with longing, loss, remembrances of the past. Great!

The title story seemed, at first, to continue the trend. Then it suddenly veered off into a long, weird, extended dream sequence. Fortunately, it at least somewhat prepared me for what was up next. The last story, “In an Instant,” was just bizarre. And creepy. Nightmarish. All full of imagery about rotting corpses and drowning in slimy water and a bunch more stuff that I’m trying to block out of my brain. *shudder*

I know there a a bunch of bloggers doing the R.I.P. Challenge. Based on the last two stories, which made up a good half of the book, I’d say this would qualify for all the creepiness factor one could want.

Translation Thursday

Javier Marías is one of those authors that I discovered completely by chance, while wandering around my Brooklyn neighborhood library. The book was A Heart So White, and I became and immediate evangelist for his work. I gushed about it to everyone I knew, and convinced my book club to read it. Since then, I’ve read one other book by him, Voyage Along the Horizon.

You should read this post about  him by Vendela Vida. I know it’s over ten years old. It’s still good. Here’s an excerpt:

“When I’d finished reading, I looked up the latitude (16° 65’N) and longitude (62° 21’W) of the island-kingdom of Redonda. I discovered that he inherited the title “Xavier I, King of Redonda,” and that he was the fourth in a line of writers to be king of this small island since 1880. I counted how many women in his books were named Luisa (four) and how many were named Berta (two) and tried to figure out if all the Luisas and Bertas were related, if they were intended to be the same woman (they’re not). I called New Directions and asked a friendly woman when his next novel would be coming out. She told me The Man of Feeling, which was published in Spain in 1986, would be published here in the summer of 2003. I read it in one sitting. Reading The Man of Feeling, which is a slender and accessible book, prompted me to reread Marías’s previous works with a new appreciation—and a newfound ability to dissect, or at least make a list of some of, his primary themes and preoccupations. That list:

  1. Women’s legs
  2. The untimely deaths of young women
  3. Prostitutes
  4. Dishonesty
  5. Translation and the inadequacy of language
  6. Memory
  7. Anticipation”

While I’m less personally interested in women’s legs, and the various crossings and uncrossings of which they are capable, I am keenly interested in themes 4-7. And he does describe legs very memorably.

I’m hoping that in the ten years since the article was published, more people have gotten to know Marías. If not, what are you waiting for? Pick up one of his books today, and you can have a review ready by next #translationthurs.

Please Look After Mom

Book cover for Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin
translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

It seems I’ve read several books lately with overlapping themes and plot points. Gone Girl dealt with the disappearance of a wife and a husband who worked as a writer. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was about a missing wife and mother, told through recreated emails and letters and other documents. Wife 22 wasn’t about anyone going missing, but the wife in question is having an interesting online correspondence with an unidentified online researcher, and they message and email back and forth. Plus the wife is a playwright. In Please Look After Mom, Mom is missing, lost during a train transfer in busy Seoul, South Korea. One daughter is a writer.

A major theme in all of these works is the question – how well do we know those closest to us? Can we know them? If they are absent, either literally or emotionally, do we know enough about them to bring them back?

The first part of Please Look After Mom is told from the perspective of one of Mom’s daughters, Chi-hon. Chi-hon realizes that she always thought of her mother just simply as Mom. She lacked an identity as Son-yo, as a person beyond one who provides for the needs of her family. Chi-hon and her mom do not always get along, in fact, they often clash. They don’t talk all that often. When they do, they often argue. When her mother disappears, Chi-hon is desperate to find her, wanting to make up for the ways that she treated her poorly. This is a common theme as the book progresses. Family took mom for granted, now she’s gone, they are worried they can never tell her things they always wanted to.

Chi-hon’s section was my favorite part of the book. Recently, I’ve been thinking about where my mother was when she was my age. I look back and realize that not only did she have a five year old kid (me!), but she would have been a year into her second marriage. Our lives are so different, it’s really incredible. It seems like there is something about becoming a mother that pushes that role and identity to the forefront, while other aspects of your person fade away. I don’t know if it’s just me getting older, or what, that is making me think about these things. I could also relate to Chi-hon’s struggle to have a cordial relationship with her mother and other family members. I mean, I have to maintain a professional demeanor at work, which I do pretty much without a problem, but get me around a stressful family situation and I can feel myself slipping back into petulant twelve year old girl mode. It’s not cute.

Well! Please Look After Mom is a solid book, definitely worth the read.

Manazuru

Book cover for ManazuruManazuru
Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Michael Emmerich

I loved the beginning of this book. Loved it. It has a sense of dreamy immediacy, which might seem contradictory but, whatevs. Here’s how it opens:

I walked on, and something was following.
Enough distance lay between us that I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. I ignored it, kept walking.
I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amidst an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging by their ages, were mother and son.

Who is following our narrator? What do they want, if anything? When I started reading, I ignored the follower, much like Kei did. She’s wandering around Manazuru, a Japanese beach town. She’s trying to sort through her husband’s abrupt disappearance, which, despite having happened years ago, still haunts her.

Speaking of hauntings, I started to like the book a little less when it’s implied that the things that Kei sees following her are ghosts. Maybe. Very Turn of the Screw-ish. It was off to me that a book so invested in the small realities of human life, eating, sleeping, bathing, would veer off into ghost story territory. But perhaps that’s exactly the kind of story where you should expect to find ghosts. The ghost of Rei, or at least the thought of him, rarely, if ever, leaves Kei. She cannot shake the unease of not knowing what happened to him. Did he really just up and leave her? Is he alive somewhere, or not? Towards the beginning of the book she mentions that he’s been gone long enough for a divorce, not long enough to be declared dead. But she makes no moves towards either resolution.

She drifts though life, like she drifts back to the sea.
~~~

Can we talk about the food for a minute? This passage had me ready to plan my next vacation in Japan:

I ordered a set lunch. Horse mackerel sashimi.
The fish wasn’t minced, as it generally is, but sliced into piece as large as the ball of my thumb and served with finely chopped ginger and perilla leaves. The mixture was sensuously moist and slightly chewy – the cook must have let the fish marinate in soy sauce for a time. I finished everything: the soup, a fish-bone stock flavored with miso, and a heaping bowl of rice.

This reminds me of Jeffery Steingarten’s essay about how when he travels he loves eating the local cuisine, but is always craving a juicy burger upon arriving home (to paraphrase something I read years ago and can’t put my finger on at the moment). That is, until he visits Japan and has the most amazing sushi of his life. Then he dreams of perfect sushi after his juicy burger. I can’t say I’d mind experiencing that for myself.
Weekend Cooking: Minding My Manners
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

August Heat

August HeatBook cover for "August Heat"
An Inspector Montalbano Mystery
Andrea Camilleri
translated by Stephen Sartarelli

It may not be August here in Florida, but it sure is plenty hot enough to identify with this book’s Sicilian summer setting. Actually, I checked, and Sicily averages 84 degree days in August. It was 87 today when I was driving home from work.

Our intrepid detective, Inspector Montalbano, is forced to help some friends find a beach house at the last moment to avoid the ire of his girlfriend, Livia. He promises her that even though he can’t get off of work for vacation, they will spend plenty of time together with no pesky murders to investigate. Who kills anyone in August? It’s too hot to do anything besides eat delicious cold things and swim in the Mediterranean.

Of course, that scenario wouldn’t make for much of a mystery.

Before long, there is indeed a murder, though one that happened several years prior to the present summer. Livia, none to happy about the situation, leaves with her friends. She’s tired of being shoved to the side for a corpse.

Inspector Montalbano is on the case, but can he stay focused in the haze of the sweltering August days, and attention from a young woman intent on charming him into submission?

While I wasn’t enthralled with the gender issues, this would be a good summer read, either on the beach or just visiting in your mind. I did like that the translator provided a little guide or glossary at the end that explained some of the Sicilian context.

Out

outOut
Natsuo Kirino

My first 1 star read of the year!

I’m all for stretching my reading horizons, which is why I decided to read Out for Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s Made in Japan event. Our lovely host features a fair amount of crime fiction on her blog, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Out  apparently also won “Japan’s Top Mystery Award,” according to its cover.

I don’t really get the mystery here – it reads more like a straightforward crime novel to me. The characters might be confused about who is after them, but the reader never is.

If this book is any indication, crime novels are not my thing. Especially creepy gory graphic rapist crime novels. Thanks but no thanks.

I kept reading because I hoped it would get better, and because I could, for awhile, justify that Mr. Sadistic’s snuff fantasies were recognized to be NOT OKAY. And then the end came. And then I just wanted to throw the book across the room. But I didn’t, because I don’t generally throw books, no matter how bad they are. (I did throw a Philippa Gregory book once, but I made sure it landed in the laundry hamper, amply cushioned by my dirty socks.)

Diary of a Young Girl

Book cover for The Diary of a Young GirlThe Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank

There’s not too many people who don’t know the broad outlines of this book. Anne Frank, a young girl in Holland, hides in a secret annex with her family during the Second World War. There’s no happy ending here, as the entire family save the father, Otto, perishes in the Holocaust.

I never had to read this book when I was in school, so I was a bit worried that I’d missed the window when you “should” read this. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Anne is remarkably frank (ha) about her thoughts and feelings in this book. She is living through terrible times, but concentrates on honing her writing skills in a way that wonderfully captures her world.

The writing is surprisingly good. I was worried the book was noteworthy primarily for its subject matter and not as a piece of literature. I don’t mean to discount the subject in any way, of course. First hand accounts of historical events, especially a tragedy like the Holocaust, are invaluable. To find one that is also a quality piece of writing is truly remarkable.

If you haven’t read this, do. It’s worth it.