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Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

March

The Door by Magda Szabo translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix c1987 NYRB edition 2005
unsettlingly unsentimental story of the relationship between two women, a writer and her housekeeper, in late Communist Hungary; thematically rich and complex

The Lady Killer by TOGAWA Masako translated from the Japanese by Simon Grove c1963 Dodd, Mead & Co. edition 1985
a good example of the Japanese psychological mystery; well-drawn characters, touch of humor

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler translated from the German by Philip Boehm c1941 Scribner edition 2019
how this novel was included in the Modern Library Best English Novels list is part of its fascinating backstory; compelling, absorbing story of an old revolutionary reevaluating his life and convictions when arrested and interrogated during a party purge (book group)

Sci Fi, A Yellowthread Street Mystery by William Marshall c1981 Holt, Rinehart and Winston
the reader is bounced between hilarity and suspense in this pinball game of a police procedural set in pre-handover Hong Kong; not everyone has come to the Science Fiction and Horror Movie convention to have a good time in costume

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa translated from the Arabic by Leri Price c2016 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition 2019
the misery of contemporary Syria made plain as three siblings attempt to take their deceased father’s body to his home village for burial; an increasingly dangerous and nightmarish journey of black comedy and despairing recollection

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic c2015 Pushkin Press edition 2017
terrific Australian thriller

A Dose of Frontier Soldiering: The Memoirs of Corporal E.A.Bode, Frontier Regular Infantry, 1877-1882 ed. by Thomas T. Smith c1994 Univ. of Nebraska Press
“soldiering is mostly laboring”; no flashy campaigning stories, but a very interesting account of the life of an enlisted soldier, albeit an exceptionally well-educated one who writes with humor and a sympathetic interest in the natural and human world of the western frontier

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell c2016English language edition Arcade Publishing 2018
psychological suspense, falling into the holes of our own making of misunderstanding, loneliness, and regret

The Honjin Murders by YOKOMIZO Seishi translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai c1973 Pushkin Press 2019
delightful locked-room mystery

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Dogs and Bones

The dog that trots around finds the bone.

I love this proverb which I just heard for the first time in a Japanese mystery The Honjin Murders by Yokomizo. It’s also attributed to gypsies and must have been a favorite of Golda Meir, as it is often credited to her.

I feel the good humored encouragement to get up and do something, no need for a grand plan. Being active, following whim and curiosity may well lead to happy surprises and discoveries.

I didn’t see myself in the busy dog at first, but it occurs to me that my reading habits could be described as “trotting around”. I move through the world of books, across centuries and cultures with minimal direction, guided largely by serendipity (thank you Three Princes of Serendip).

I’m going to keep reminding myself to be more curious and venturesome in other ways as well. Who knows what other bones I might find?

The image of a curious dog brought a particular literary favorite irresistibly to mind. The inimitable Hank the Cowdog has many adventures on his ranch, as described by author John Erickson in a really delightful series of books. Hank is an up-to-date dog, too; check out his website hankthecowdog.com. Just thinking about Hank puts a big grin on my face!

…time has solidified

It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front…so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice.

Khaled Khalifa from Death is Hard Work

a campaign worker’s lot is not a happy one

Yamasaki always wagered that he would be disillusioned; it was as if he kept up a constant bet with his youthful hopes. Yamasaki ranked as a genuine veteran in election campaigns, and he was absolutely indomitable, but a kind of masochistic fervor lodged within him. Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the lease surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road…(he was an) epicure of disillusion

After The Banquet by MISHIMA Yukio

on the writing life

I started writing a book…I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer. Life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its location, it had already gone somewhere else…

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

from Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Politic$

The enemy’s victory was achieved entirely thanks to sinister machinations and money…a tremendous flood of money…swirled through the streets with manic frenzy … The money shone like a sun through the clouds, an evil, baleful sun. And while it winked in the sky, plants with poisonous leaves wide-spread grew thick, and rank grasses, cropping out in every direction, stretched sinister feelers from here and there in the city toward the clear summer sky.

After The Banquet by MISHIMA Yukio

Looking back, from A Month In The Country

…at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart–knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever–the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow.

A Month In The Country by J.L. Carr

For All The Gold In The World, a Mediterranean Noir

For the umpteenth time I came to the conclusion that families are complicated and that everything becomes clear only when it’s too late. And then all you’re left with is time to waste on your regrets.

I am very happy to meet Marco Buratti aka”the Alligator”, a self-styled “free man with an outlaw heart”, in the series of novels by Italian author Massimo Carlotto. Writers in many countries have adopted/adapted the style and themes of noir crime fiction to tell stories of their own contemporary urban world. It’s been exciting recently to find several small presses (Pushkin Press, Bitter Lemon, Europa’s World Noir series) offering some really fine Noirs in English translation.

The elements of the genre – a world-weary flawed detective, laconic style, interior monologue – easily fall into cliche or even parody. These novels are utterly dependent on the author’s skill with language. Tone is everything. In the hands of a real craftsman, the Noir combines the pleasures of a complex story with the satisfactions of philosophical reflection.

Here is the Alligator reflecting after the not altogether happy resolution of For All The Gold In The World:
I kept on keeping on while waiting for another case where we’d need to step in to help straighten things out. The solution was almost never as simple as determining truth. We needed to protect our clients’ interests and, as much as possible, put things right, while respecting the rules of free men with outlaw hearts.

The opening quotation about regret is classic noir, taken from the scene below.

I sighed. It had been a little more than twenty-four hours and I was already standing up my new girlfriend.
She was at work and I couldn’t call her. I wrote her a text in which the word “sorry” appeared three separate times.
I turned around and, since I was definitely running early, I left the highway and drove to a multiplex. I had no idea which movie to watch, basing my decision more or less on showtimes. I chose a movie by an Italian director. A famous multiple award-winning director. I’d always been deeply grateful to the auteur school of filmmaking, which had put me in touch with aspects of life I knew nothing about. I often left the theater shaken, sometimes filled with wonder. The movies fed me with stories of the civilian world, as we referred to it, and helped me to understand ordinary people. But I felt no envy. Their world was still one I didn’t like. Unlike Max the Memory, I’d never cherished the dream of changing it. I preferred to live on its outskirts.
That afternoon I was sucked into a story of old age and death, told with great delicacy. I sat there as the end titles scrolled past and was the last to leave. I leaned on my car and smoked a couple of cigarettes, immersed in memories of my early life, the life that ended the day I wound up in prison. For the umpteenth time I came to the conclusion that families are complicated and that everything becomes clear only when it’s too late. and then all you’re left with is time to waste on your regrets.
“You can’t change the past,” I muttered under my breath, pulling open the car door and rushing to slip the CD into the player…The memories slipped from my mind. [the music] had managed to persuade the past to grant me a truce.