Monday 31 January 2011

Fire and Ice

After 120 minutes of action at the weekend in the Asian Cup Final, Australia's national team, the hapless Socceroos (after dominating play and chances), went down 1-0 to Japan's national selection, the Blue Samurai.  Some would say that this post presenting some literature from both countries is a timely homage to the event: others, more cynical, might argue that it was complete coincidence that I read an Australian book and a Japanese book around this time.  Whatever your thoughts, here it is :)

We'll start with the Australian contender, and my second read for this year's Aussie Author Challenge is Tim Winton's debut novel An Open Swimmer.  Set in Perth and on the West Australian coast south of the capital, it focuses on Jerra, a young twenty-something who has recently dropped out of uni and is on a camping trip with his best mate Sean (note: using the word 'friend' in reviews of Australian books is frowned upon - 'mate' is the preferred expression).  A chance encounter with an old bloke living near the beach (note: as above, 'bloke' not 'man') has repercussions for Jerra, for whom the trip is less of a holiday than an attempt to run away from the past.

The story is divided into three parts: the first describes Jerra and Sean's short camping trip; the second follows Jerra's attempts to create a normal life for himself back in Perth; the third sees Jerra taking off again in the vain hope of finding some answers back where he started.  It's a short work, and if you were expecting all the answers to be set out for you by the end of it, you'll be sadly disappointed.

Winton is very adept at revealing his stories little by little, teasing the reader with half-sentences thrown away, hinting at a dark secret buried in the past (but liable to surface, rising up from the deep, at any minute).  We slowly find out that Jerra's drifting is connected with several events: a pearl found in the head of a large fish; his relationship with Sean; and a connection with Sean's mother, Jewel.

The prose, what little of it there is, switches between elegant, poetical descriptions of the sea and short, stark simple sentences, one per action, focusing the reader's attention in on Jerra. A lot of the text, however, is dialogue, real, spoken Australian, jumping around, using slang, something which contributes to the sometimes maddening feeling that there's something happening beneath the surface which the reader can't quite fathom.  Along with the constant fishing jargon, the use of local idiom makes this a book which non-natives would probably struggle a little with unless they are willing to go with the flow.  If this book ever made it into an American edition, I suspect that it was a fairly gutted, unrecognisable version of the original...

For a first novel (written at uni!), it's a stunning effort, but I suspect that it's not for everyone.  An Open Swimmer requires a lot of thought and concentration, and it's not the sort of book that gives up all its secrets in one reading.  If that sounds like your kind of read though (and especially if you've already tried - and liked - some of Winton's other works), I heartily recommend it.  Just get a dictionary of fish names handy first...

Opaque as it is though, An Open Swimmer could have its themes written ten-feet high in purple crayon in comparison with my next book.  Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, one of the works cited by the Nobel Prize committee in bestowing that award, is a typically beautiful piece of Japanese writing, meaning (of course) that the majority of the sub-text went floating far over my head.  But I digress.

Shimamura, an idle Tokyoite, takes a train journey to the mountains in the north, returning to a small village where he met the intriguing Komako, a geisha in training, earlier in the year.  On the train, he sees another beautiful young woman, caring for an unwell fellow passenger, and when he arrives at his destination, he learns that the young woman (Yoko) lives in the same house as Komako.  Throughout the rest of the short novel, he crosses paths with Yoko, never quite spending time together, always on the periphery of genuine communication.

I'd talk more about the plot if there was one; the book consists merely of Shimamura's two visits to the mountains (his married life in Tokyo is largely ignored...) and the time he spends there with the irascible but charming Komako.  It's all about the pictures Kawabata paints with his words, the portraits of the vivacious Komako and the reserved Yoko, the images he puts in our mind of the stark, wintry landscape - effortless and enjoyable to read.

However, I feel that this one is a little too sub-textual for my liking.  I felt myself constantly sensing that there was something there, something I should be getting, grasping around for some little allusion, some point the writer is making (and concealing).  While part of the beauty of Japanese literature is this sense of the unstated (and understated), Snow Country was a little too much of a good thing in this regard.

I was also comparing it in my mind with another Japanese book I read not long ago, Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura, and, unfortunately, Kawabata's book by no means came off best.  Kusamakura could be a summer version of Snow Country (without geishas), and it's a book I enjoyed more, combining the elegance of style with a disarming humour and frequent quotable bon-mots.

Before you all get the wrong impression, I did enjoy Snow Country, but I think (and hope) that his later work will impress me more (this was his debut novel, if you can stretch these pages out to a novel).  Of the two Japanese Nobel Laureates, Oe has impressed me more - so far: there's a lot more to read before that decision is final though ;)

This was my final review for Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 4.  I managed to read twelve Japanese books in the time allotted, well more than the single required work!  My collection of Japanese literature, which has become a bit of a hobby, now almost stretches across one whole three-foot shelf, and before long, it will have colonised the whole space for itself.  This challenge saw me read numerous works by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soseki, and I have just scraped the surface with Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata.  Thanks again to Belezza for hosting this wonderful challenge, and I'll definitely be joining in the next one, whenever that may be :)

Thursday 27 January 2011


As some of you may already be aware, I recently caved into the desire to get an e-reader and purchased a Kindle of my very own.  I've been playing around with it a bit, but I haven't given it a name; that's a bit of a girly thing to do and also seems to be the first step towards madness (one day you're calling your i-Pod Trixie, the next you're talking to Betty the kettle and holding a funeral for Charlie the toaster, whose filaments burned out at such a tragically young age).

My reason for getting an e-reader was to be able to download, and read, tons of free classics, and I've managed to find a lot of favourites and save them to the memory of my new toy - Victoriana, French- and German-language classics, you know the drill.  So here's a review of my first foray into hand-held electronic reading: guess who I chose to start off the new era of literary enjoyment...

The Three Clerks is one of Anthony Trollope's early novels, published between Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne.  It follows the fortunes of three young men, gainfully employed in the service of their country at various public offices in London.  Harry Norman, a very respectable fellow, is joined at the Weights and Measures by the clever Alaric Tudor, whose cousin Charley Tudor is taken on at the Internal Navigation office.  Just down the river lives a distant relative of Norman's, Mrs. Woodward, a widow with three young daughters, and the three young clerks become quite intimate with the ladies of the Woodward family.  It does not take a brain surgeon to see where this story is going...

Admittedly, this early work is not up there with Trollope's best novels, but it's an entertaining read and worth trying for a couple of reasons.  The first is the light it sheds on what is to come in Trollope's fiction throughout the remainder of his career, as The Three Clerks, seen in retrospect, is filled with pointers as to future themes and characters.  The duo of the ambitious Alaric and the dastardly Undecimus Scott, a nasty Scotch nobleman who uses Tudor's ambition to further his own interests, are surely prototypes of Mark Robarts, the 'hero' of Framley Parsonage, and the very persuasive Nathaniel Sowerby.  The Woodward sisters would remind any fan of the Barchester Chronicles of the Dale sisters, first seen in The Small House at Allington, while Charley Tudor is most certainly reincarnated as Johnny Eames in the same book.

The areas covered in the novel are also revisited later in Trollope's career, forming the background to some of his finest work.  The seed of The Way We Live Now, Trollope's epic tale of greed, is sown in The Three Clerks, where Trollope first explores the dire consequences of dabbling with stocks and shares, and the extraordinary characters who manage to make a living from it.  Of course, the political side of the novel, only briefly mentioned, will eventually lead to the Palliser novels, perhaps the finest portrayal of politics in British literature.  It's also a warning to anyone who is thinking of running for office - a warning Trollope himself ignored...  Ever yearning for acceptance, Trollope stood for parliament later in life, coming (as expected) last of the four candidates, and gaining nothing from the experience but more room in his wallet, but it's hardly surprising when you read his eulogies in the novel to serving the Empire in this way.

And this is the second reason for reading The Three Clerks: its autobiographical nature.  Charley Tudor is Anthony Trollope, just as David Copperfield is Charles Dickens, and the difference in the way these two famous authors deal with their youthful alter-ego is telling.  Copperfield's journey to manhood is sedate, and he appears to have been born mature and ready to face the world.  Tudor is a disaster waiting to happen, a likeable, lazy lad, thrown into the world of adults before he is ready, able to drink, flirt and joke around at work - yet with a good heart and a burning sense of what he really should be doing.  I know which one I find more interesting.

In An Autobiography, Trollope discussed the art of novel writing, claiming (bound by Victorian morals as he was) that the writer is torn between the moral imperative to portray good behaviour and the writer's need to liven up his story, saying that good literature trod the fine line between the two sides.  Of course, today we don't share the Victiorian requirement for every villain to get his come-uppance, but The Three Clerks shows the truth in Trollope's words.  Harry Norman, morally by far the superior of our three young friends, is easily the most boring; the other two flawed men capture the reader's attention and carry the story along, and the treacherous Undy Scott, entertaining as he is, is doomed to be punished by the everpresent Victorian Nemesis of fate.

There are several flaws in The Three Clerks - the ridiculous names (Sir Gregory Hardlines, Mr. Oldeschole, the lawyer Gitemthrouit), the predictable plot, and the rather lengthy and trying start to the novel.  However, Trollope always comes good and, at times, pokes fun at his own failings.  In Charley's literary attempts, the writer parodies his own style, when Charley repeats his editor's pleas to start the book in the middle of the action, claiming that once the reader has committed themself to the first volume, the writer can describe people and places at whatever length he desires.  If Trollope had taken his own tongue-in-cheek advice, it would probably have improved the novel; nevertheless, for Trollope aficionados at least, it's still one which is well worth the effort.

And what of the Kindle experience, I hear you ask (no, you did, I heard you).  Well, it's not all good.  I was forever adjusting the font, trying to get as much as possible onto the screen without the text becoming too small to actually read.  I'm also not a big fan of the need to click to turn the page, especially as you're reading twice as many pages (at least) as in a paper book.  The biggest issue, however, was probably due more to the free classic than the format - without a cover page, introduction and notes, the novel seemed a little bare and uninviting.  It was free though :)

All in all, the jury's still out on the Kindle - watch this space...

Sunday 23 January 2011

Down in the Deep, Dark Forest...

Despite my frequent forays into Japanese literature over the past couple of years, there are still a couple of glaring gaps in my J-Lit C.V., namely my lack of reading of novels from the country's two Nobel Laureates, Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata.  The latter is on the agenda for the next couple of months, but today's post sees me tackle the first of these giants, with a review of Oe's novel The Silent Cry (translated by John Bester) - which is (un)strangely familiar...

The novel is centred on two men, the reserved Mitsusaburo Nedokoro and his charismatic younger brother Takashi.  The two brothers have had their share of problems in life: Taka fled to America to escape the guilt felt after his mentally-disabled sister's suicide and his role in violent student riots; Mitsu is emotionally drained, crushed by the double blow of the arrival of a mentally-disabled son and the unexpected, somewhat bizarre, suicide of a close friend.  Therefore, when Taka returns from the States, suggesting a return to their small hometown in Shikoku, Mitsu is happy to go along with his plan.  However, the past has a funny way of returning to haunt the present...

The Silent Cry is a superb book, packing a tremendous amount into its 274 pages.  Oe draws the reader through his thoughts on suicide, family ties and mental illness, using a series of parallels reaching back in time.  The original Japanese title Man'en no Gannen no Futoboru (Football in Year One of the Gan'en Era), actually refers back to 1860, a time when Japan was making its first, tiny efforts to communicate with the outside world again, and the year in which the Nedokoro's ancestors took part in events which are then repeated a century later.  For those concerned about the use of a sporting word in the title, fear not - sport plays an insignificant role in the book, to the extent where I only found out afterwards, via Wikipedia, that the 'football' involved was actually the American, relatively kicking-less, gridiron version...  The English title comes from a comment Mitsu makes, comparing the last actions of his late friend to a silent cry; not for help, however, but more for communication, letting people know of his feelings

The setting of the novel adds to the mood Oe creates, with the Nedokoro's hometown being a valley completely surrounded by a dark, menacing forest.  The approaching winter, and the promise (or threat) of heavy snow which it brings, along with the damaged bridge cutting off the only road in or out of the village, heighten this sense of isolation, mirroring the feelings of the main characters, each of whom is trying to come to terms with their own issues, in their own way.  Events naturally build to a climax, but the reader is never sure exactly what that climax will bring.

From the very first page, two things were very clear to me.  Firstly, that I was going to like this book (just as with Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which I read recently, I was sucked straight into the writer's world); secondly, that the Oe influence on Haruki Murakami which I had read a little about was clearly evident.  From Mitsu's very first action of getting up, going out to the garden, and descending into a hole, Murakami fans are in very familiar territory.

In fact there are many features of The Silent Cry which impact on Murakami's work , especially his early novels.  In addition to Mitsu's predilection for doing his thinking underground, the nickname of 'the Rat', given to Mitsu by one of Taka's friends, and Mitsu's stoic, almost passive attitude to the events unfolding around him, some of which are actually rather humiliating, are reminiscent of Murakami's early nameless protagonists.  Even the Japanese title provided inspiration for the younger writer, whose second short novel was entitled 1973-nen no Pinuboru (Pinball, 1973).  Even the idea of the isolated valley could be seen, if we were stretching the point (and, where Murakami is concerned, I usually am), as the model for the Town in Hard-Boiled Wonderland...

Murakami influences aside, this is a book which demands to be read and reread, which I'll no doubt be doing at some point, especially as I don't think I paid this book the attention it deserves.  It took me a week to get through it, mainly because of the demands of starting a new job (and looking after an unexpected visitor from overseas!), and that was too long for me.  If I'd read this in three or four days, as I had expected to, I suspect that the narrative would have flowed a lot better, and the mood Oe created would have held up more; the start-stop approach meant that I often took time to get back into the book when picking it up again.

So, just as 2009 was the Year of Yukio Mishima, and 2010 was the Year of Natsume Soseki and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, 2011 may well be the year of Kenzaburo Oe.  But will it also be the year of Yasunari Kawabata?  Well, I'll have to get back to you on that one...

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Life and Trains

After completing 2010's Aussie Author Challenge recently, it's straight on to the 2011 edition, a little more arduous than last year's version.  I have somewhat foolishly pledged to read twelve books by at least nine different Australian writers (one a month - no problem, right?).  The first stop was Wikipedia, to have a quick look at Miles Franklin Award winners for a little inspiration, and I clicked on the 2008 winner, Steven Carroll's The Time We Have Taken, only to find that it was the third in a trilogy (of which the other two were also shortlisted for the award).  Then it was off to the library web-site to do a quick search for the first of the trilogy, and a couple of hours later I was was plucking it from the shelves.  Isn't technology wonderful :)

The first of Carroll's trilogy is called The Art of the Engine Driver and is set in 1950s suburban Melbourne (although, in today's sprawling metropolis, the 'new' suburb, 9kms from the centre, would count as inner-city!).  Vic, a passionate train driver, his wife Rita and their son Michael are on their way down the road to a party, while Paddy Ryan, a highly-experienced colleague and mentor of Vic, is about to take the Spirit passenger train on its run from Melbourne to Sydney.  Both these events will end up affecting the lives of the characters populating the pages of this book, although perhaps not in the way it may first seem.

The novel is basically separated into two unevenly-weighted strands, with the bulk of the story centred on the family's long, slow walk to the party (and, believe me, it's a slow walk).  Luckily, the author doesn't restrict himself to the three unities, and the text meanders through time and place with flashbacks (flashesback?!) and flashforwards, as well as switching rather impressively from third- to first-person for several of the main characters, something which has the effect of allowing us multiple glimpses of the same occurrence.

Despite these tantalising glimpses of what the future may hold, however, the meaning of the events remain elusive until the end of the story.  Certainly, I was expecting the party to be leading up to some sort of climax, but Carroll skilfully turns it into a more subtle affair, slight cracks appearing in the fabric of relationships, rather than the gaping chasms the reader is suspecting may appear.  Like the slow walk to the party, and the ever-present comet in the sky, things happen gradually in Carroll's world.

As much as it is about Vic, his family and his frustrated dreams, The Art of the Engine Driver is also about Melbourne, and Australia, in the 1950s.  The newly-constructed suburb, a vast plain cleared of trees, ready for the families to arrive and the houses to go up, is populated by people from all over the world: from the Anglos with their dubious (or proud) heritage, to the newly-arrived mainland Europeans.  The contrast between the first, hesitant signs of suburbia and the wild, uncontrolled bushland is a very familiar one to me; my own house is situated not far from Melbourne's new urban fringe - which is just slightly further out from the CBD than was the case in the fifties...

While some things are very recognisable today (such as Michael's desire to be a fast bowler!), some are relics of a time long gone.  The misguided '6 o'clock swill', the early closing times for pubs which merely resulted in working men drinking themselves sick between five and six p.m., is sketched out beautifully(?) here, legions of drunken workers staggering out of the pubs as bar staff literally hose down the beer- (and vomit-) soaked floors.  We also see the slow but inevitable signs of progress, shown in the replacement of the old steam engines with the new diesel trains - and the preference for the new-fangled 'rock' music among the younger generation...

The Art of the Engine Driver (and the title does make sense as this art is a pivotal part of the novel) is well worth reading, and I'll definitely be hunting out the second book in the trilogy, The Gift of Speed.  And that, you see, is just what makes this challenge so difficult: how am I supposed to read books by nine different Australian authors if I like all the books?  I'll just end up reading lots of books by the same author.  At this rate, I'll need about twenty books just to make it to nine writers :(

Sunday 16 January 2011

Self-Promotion of the Highest Order

In the introduction to virtually all the Anthony Trollope books I've read (and there have been a few), there has been one constant, one recurring fact mentioned time and time again: the damage to his reputation done by the publication of his autobiography.  It's something which has been teasing away at me for years, so I finally bit the bullet and had a look at it for myself.  Does it explain this loss of face?  Yes, very much so.  Is it worth reading?  Again, the answer is a resounding yes.

Trollope had a reputation as a hard-working, hard-living, jovial and cantankerous fellow, and An Autobiography did nothing to dispel that image (which may, of course, have been Trollope's intention in writing it and ordering its posthumous publication).  Stories of his hunting, his rides around the countryside in the service of the Post Office - his employer for decades, even after he had earned fame - and his behaviour at literary parties, alternating between belligerence and snoozing are present throughout the book.  The London he describes is a fascinating one, populated with literary giants such as Thackeray, Eliot, and Carlyle, and Tony Trollope was one of the leading lights, if we are to believe his account.

While most of this was known to the public though, the chapters on his early life revealed information that most had never suspected.  Owing to the disastrous business decisions of his father, Trollope's family was plunged into poverty, leaving him in the unenviable position of one born to affluence and forced to live amongst the affluent whilst possessing nothing himself.  His dreams of university dashed, things got worse when both his father and his sister and brother died while in financial exile in Belgium.  His mother Francis (who could be - and probably is - the subject of her own biography) took up writing in her fifties, and through her literary pursuits managed to revive the family's fortunes and set an example for the the young Post Office clerk.

Apart from the fascinating account of his personal life, Trollope talks about several areas he was interested in, focusing on writing in general and his works in particular.  He  is a notoriously bad judge of his own work, dismissing the epic He Knew He Was Right as a failure while praising himself for having produced minor works which are virtually unknown today.  He ponders the attempt he made to portray the development of the character of Plantagenet Palliser, before lamenting:
"Who will read (the Palliser books) consecutively, in order that he may understand the characters of the Duke of Omnium, of Plantagenet Palliser, and Lady Glencora?  Who will even know that they should be so read?" An Autobiography, Oxford World's Classics edition (2008), p.184
Erm, pretty much everyone who enjoys his work...

His musings on the wider literary world are also interesting and, for the most part, still valid today.  He believes the vocation of writer to be the best occupation available - provided that you are successful.  With the chances of that being as low then as now, and as
"many a good book is born to blush unseen..." p.70,
Trollope claims he would always advise aspiring writers against throwing themselves into a writing career.  He also discusses critics, deploring the waste of time and energy spent by many writers in trying to obtain, by fair means or foul, favourable reviews in popular publications (something which may sound familiar to many bloggers...).

Of course, publishing itself is another topic of interest, and his pages on the problematic issue of American pirating of English literature make for an eye-opening, if familiar, topic.  I, for one, was not aware that American publishers used to simply take an English copy, use it to make their own edition and then sell thousands of copies in The States at great profit...

Trollope also had issues with getting his own work published, but he was more than capable of fighting his own battles.  When a publisher attempted to beat him down on an advance price, claiming that it was worth the lower price to have the publisher's name on the cover, Trollope wryly stated:
"I did think much of Messrs. Longman's name, but I liked it best at the bottom of a cheque." p.109
It is, of course, Trollope's attitude to money, along with his tradesman-like attitude to writing, which so disgusted critics.  Rather than pretending to be writing simply for the sake of art, he makes it quite clear that he regarded it as a second occupation and appears just as concerned with the amount of money he made from each novel as with its literary merits.  This unsuppressed sense of glee at the piles of filthy lucre earned through his fiction offended the sensitivities of the Victorian literary police and damaged his reputation for decades.

His method of work also put many people's noses out of joint, with his assertion of words-per-hour as a sensible technique confounding many.  Each morning, he was woken at 5.30, wherever he was in the world, and he wrote for three hours at the rate of 250 words (or one page) every quarter of an hour.  Once a book was finished, he simply moved onto another, the ultimate book-churning machine, always ahead with his serialisations, always with a novel or two ready to unload onto unsuspecting publishers.  Trollope didn't think much of talk of muses and inspiration...

What Trollope perhaps failed to realise is that it was not so much the fact of his money obsession and work ethic which scared the horses, but rather his lack of restraint in discussing it.  While he may (rightly) accuse those who disagree with him of hypocrisy, what he fails to see is that it is the act of discussing these things which leaves a disagreeable taste in the mouth.  For someone so obsessed with the idea of a gentleman, he seems to have made some serious misjudgements about what gentlemen would consider acceptable (I realise that he probably wasn't too concerned with the backlash, what with being dead and all, but this was his attempt to enshrine his reputation, and, to a certain extent, he blew it).

Still, time has healed the wounds, and Trollope is again one of the more successful, and popular, Victorian writers, his fame outstripping many contemporaries whom he considered his equal (or superior).  An Autobiography is an extremely interesting insight into a great author and a fascinating man, one whose faults are far outweighed by his many talents.  Trollope seems satisfied with his life and ends by saying:
"... if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a 5-pound note over a card-table; -of what matter is that to any reader?  I have betrayed no woman.  Wine has brought to me no sorrow." p.366
Truly a life less ordinary.

Thanks to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for sending me this review copy :)

Thursday 13 January 2011

To Be Read

On Saturday, I was chatting with a few book bloggers on Twitter, as you do (my username is at tony_malone, by the way), and the topic of to-be-read (TBR) books happened to come up.  I was perplexed when my admission to having a total of twenty-two unread books on my shelves was met with derision by several people, a feeling which was quickly replaced by incredulity when the other people in the conversation said that their TBR pile was well into three figures.  One blogger (who shall remain nameless) claimed to have more than 800 unread books at home, which leaves me wondering two things: firstly, how many books they have in total, and secondly, where they sleep, as I'm sure there is no room for a bed in their dwelling.  Be that as it may, I thought it might be nice to dash off a quick post with a picture of my unread treasures, letting you all know what I may or may not be reading over the coming months.

As always, I have a few Wordsworth Editions classics waiting to be read.  These books come with introductions and notes and only cost a few dollars each from the Book Depository.  They've recently changed from the dark blue cover (seen above for Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, along with a very old, neglected and battered copy of Cervantes' Don Quixote) to a rather Gothic looking black number (as modelled here by Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and a Dostoyevsky double bill - The Gambler and The House of the Dead).

The other classics here are Oxford World's Classics and are review copies which I haven't yet reviewed (or read...).  I'm currently half-way through Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography, and I hope to get to Gogol's Plays and Petersburg Tales and Samuel Richardson's Pamela very soon.  No, really.

Naturally, my reading preferences for Japanese and German literature are also represented here; I have a chunky copy of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre awaiting me, and there are also a few Japanese classics.  I've yet to read anything by Japan's two Nobel laureates in literature, so Kenzaburo Oe's The Silent Cry and Yasunari Kawabata's Thousand Cranes should rectify that.  The other Japanese-related book here is Jay Rubin's biography of one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

Amongst all the classics, there are some modern(ish) books too.  I'm hoping to read a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro in 2011, and these copies of The Unconsoled and An Artist of the Floating World are a good place to start.  Also, after enjoying A Fine Balance so much, I was pleased to snap up Rohinton Mistry's debut novel, Such a Long Journey, from a bargain bin a few weeks ago.  Finally, Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting will increase my already hefty Kundera collection :)

There are two books by authors totally new to me, bought for a dollar apiece at the campus bookshop: Robertson Davies' Murther & Walking Spirits and Margaret Drabble's The Needle's Eye.  I don't often buy books by new authors (that's what the library's for!), but one little Australian dollar?

Finally(!), there are three books which have been on my shelves for a long, long time.  Jane Gleeson-White's Classics is a great book which I am putting off reading until I have read more of the novels discussed in it!  Robert Graves' The Greek Myths is fairly self-explanatory, and I'm sure I'll get around to it one day.  Which leaves...

...Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged!  I bought this on a whim for $5 at a book sale, didn't really like the sound of it when I checked out what it was actually about, and it has now lain dormant on my shelves for about two years.  Will I ever read it?  I'm not sure.  I'm not afraid of the length, but do I really want to spend a few precious reading weeks on something I'll probably hate...

So, that's it, dear readers: my TBR shelf.

Of course, by next week there'll be another few books there...

Monday 10 January 2011

Letters from America

"When you gooooo, will you send baaaaack, a letter frooom Americaaa?"
No, today's post has nothing to do with bespectacled Scottish icons The Proclaimers, but the theme today is definitely stateside.  I'm not a big reader of American literature, or even books set in the US, so I've read surprisingly little that other bloggers (or, at least, many American bloggers) would take for granted.  I only have about ten books by American authors lining my bookshelves, and Kerouac's On The Road is the most recent, so while I'm not ready to commit myself heavily, I may attempt to rectify that a little this year.

Then again, I may not.  We'll see :)

The first book in this mini-challenge is a book whose name I have continually stumbled across in recent months, Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.  As the name suggests, the book contains three separate stories which, as well as being thematically linked, are eventually shown to comprise one whole story.  In City Of Glass, a writer receives a call asking for a detective named Paul Auster, and his decision to assume this identity and take on a case leads to a breakdown in his routine existence, causing him to question his life and the way he lives it.  The second story, Ghosts, is a shorter detective story, where Blue is hired by White to spy on Black (and from there, it gets even more confusing...).  The third part of the trilogy is The Locked Room, and in this story the writer (who may or may not be Auster) attempts to find an old friend who has disappeared, leaving him in charge of his legacy - and his wife.

I was a little nervous about whether or not I'd enjoy this book, but from the first page I sensed that this was my kind of writing.  The idea of an ordinary man catapulted into extraordinary occurrences is very reminiscent of Murakami, and the way in which Quinn, the protagonist of City of Glass, is pulled deeper into a bizarre case, unable to give up something which he shouldn't really be doing anyway, could come straight out of Kafka.  Even Quinn's meeting with the author Paul Auster was familiar, reminding me of a certain Hiraku Makimura from Dance Dance Dance...

By the middle of the third story, I was starting to get a little restless, as the parts were all really too similar for a collection of just three stories; however, Auster pulled it all together by revealing that the three stories were actually linked (sometimes it's good to know nothing about an author or his books!), and the finished article was a very satisfying read.

In some ways, it was a little scary to see how close we actually are to falling off the edge of our lives.  Auster's characters are prompted to make a slight alteration in direction by external events, and before they know it, they have abandoned their jobs, their homes and their way of life.  Of course, you could look at it in a different light; the ties we think bind us to our lives are mostly arbitrary and more easily severed than we believe.  An interesting viewpoint, and a very interesting book - more of Auster to come this year, I'm sure.

The quote I started today's post with is actually more apt for the second of today's reads than for the first, coming as it does from a song about emigration.  Franz Kafka's Amerika (I could translate the title, but then I'd have to bludgeon you to death with a copy of A Suitable Boy) follows 'German' emigrant Karl Roßmann on his voyage of discovery through early-twentieth century America.  An earlier novel than some of his more famous works (e.g. The Trial, The Metamorphosis), Amerika is a little more straight forward than expected but still contains enough of his trademark style to be recognisable as a Kafka work.

We meet the seventeen-year-old Roßmann on board a ship about to dock in New York, staring at the Statue of Liberty.  Sent abroad by his parents to avoid the scandal of his illicit (unwanted) liaison with a maid, Karl is left to his own devices, abandoned to make his own way in the 'Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten' (land of unlimited possibilities - a common German cliché used about America), and the story consists of his repeated efforts to establish himself, followed by failure and a subsequent descent in social standing.

Amerika is a sort of Bildungsroman, just in reverse; Karl never really manages to get on, despite his best efforts, and is dragged down by a couple of unsavoury characters.  The duo of Delamarche, a Frenchman, and the Irish Robinson take advantage of Karl's good nature and innocence in a way which reminded me of how Fagin and The Artful Dodger attempted to corrupt Oliver Twist.  According to Kafka's (English) Wikipedia page, this idea was not as fanciful as it first appeared, as Kafka described Amerika as his attempt at a Dickens-style novel.

As mentioned above, the usual Kafka themes and style are evident.  Karl frequently has to defend himself against unfair accusations from figures of power, launching the usual complicated and lengthy Kafka-esque monologues pleading his case, with little chance of success.  The characters swing quickly in their moods towards each other, strangers becoming close friends (and then sworn enemies) in a matter of minutes, and Karl gets caught up in the affairs of the people he meets, in spite of his lengthy internal promises to the contrary.  Business as usual in a Kafka novel.

Sadly, there's one more thing Amerika has in common with Kafka's other novels, and that is that the story is, unfortunately, unfinished.  There is a huge section missing before the last chapter, which is itself incomplete, a frustration for the reader, but something which we shouldn't complain too much about.  You see, after Kafka's untimely death, he instructed his executor, editor and close friend Max Brod, to destroy all his unpublished materials, and it is due entirely to Brod's decision to ignore this instruction that we are able to read any of his novels at all...

To finish today, I'd just like to tie the two books together a little more tightly.  As well as the setting, there are several parallels, with Auster being influenced a little by Kafka in the sense of his characters' seemingly being unable to free themselves from a nightmare scenario.  And what is the plot for The Locked Room?  A man is instructed to deal with the literary legacy of a writer friend after his (apparent) death.  Now if that's not a Kafka allusion, I don't know what is...

Friday 7 January 2011

It's All In the Mind

As a Murakami fan who has read virtually all of his fiction, I have frequently been asked for recommendations as to a good starter Murakami book, and I have given various answers: Norwegian Wood (his most 'normal' work); The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (perhaps his best novel); Hear The Wind Sing (often good to start right at the beginning, even if it is a difficult book to source outside Japan); after the quake (a short collection of stories, a good Murakami 'taster', and the one I read first).

One book I have never recommended as a good first Murakami book, however, is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, and after rereading this novel for the start of my Murakami challenge, I'm not about to change my mind.  Would you like to know why?  Step this way (watch out for the wells, and don't trip over the cats...).

Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is a story told in two alternating strands.  The first follows a man described as a Calcutec, a government agent responsible for encrypting top-secret data in his head, and the slightly bizarre adventures which he falls into after completing a routine job.  The second is set in a mystical town, surrounded by an impenetrable wall, where unicorns roam the streets and where nobody has any memory of how they got there.  As the story progresses, the two strands gradually start to throw up parallels, before the reader realises how the stories are connected and what the town actually represents.

As well as differing in content, the two halves are also differentiated by the language used.  Alfred Birnbaum translates these genre differences by setting out the events in the Town in the present tense and using more neutral language, thus creating a sense of distance.  The story set in the real world (although that is a very arbitrary judgement in Murakami's writing) uses a lot more colloquial language, with some characters speaking in slang or regional dialect, with the idea translated from Japanese to English by the use of (I presume) American slang.

Without giving too much away, Murakami is looking, as usual, at identity and individuality, and the way what makes us ourselves is locked away inside our mind, unreachable and unknown.  As is common in his novels, none of the characters are named, and this adds to the feeling of anonymity and isolation.  At times, it can be a little down-beat and depressing, but by the end Murakami gives his character enough individual traits to make him interesting.  For anyone interested (and with access to academic databases), I recently read an interesting journal article** about the meaning behind Murakami's work - warning: not for those allergic to the prose of academia :)

Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is an intriguing book, a little different to his other novels, but well crafted and definitely worth reading.  So why am I so hesitant to recommend it to beginner Murakami fans?  Well, there are a few things which make this less than perfect.  One is Alfred Birnbaum's translation and, perhaps, the editing.  While Murakami's writing style is influenced by many American writers, Birnbaum's translation overdoes this; compared to later translators (Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel), Birnbaum doesn't capture the smoothness you expect from Murakami, and there were a few sentences which simply did not make sense to me.  Also, I noticed several glaring editing errors (repetition of words, 'is/are' missing) - I think that later books were handled with a lot more care.

This book is also a little difficult as it is at the far end of the Murakami spectrum.  With Norwegian Wood being his most 'normal' novel, and many of the others being slightly left of centre, Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is virtually a fantasy novel at times, a little un-Murakami-like.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't think that this book would give a first-time reader a true impression of his writing.  There's also a huge info-dump in the middle, lasting two of the real-world strand chapters, which just feels long and clumsy.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which also uses this multiple-strand technique, achieves this much more skilfully, making the clumsy handling here even more glaring.

Don't let me put you off reading this book - it's great in places, and I really enjoyed the start and the end, where the writer slows the action down and makes us concentrate on the little things in life, sifting through what is really important.  It's just not his best, and definitely not the gateway to enjoying Murakami.  Disagreement and complaints to the usual address :)

** Strecher, M. (1999). Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.  Journal of Japanese Studies, 25(2),  263-298

Monday 3 January 2011

A Challenging Time Ahead

A Happy New Year to one and all, and welcome to Year Three of my little blog (I know it's 2011, but around here we only count in blog years!).  I've decided to start off Year Three by letting you know what challenges I'm planning to take part in this year.  I did fairly well with the three I tried this year, but I suspect that these little challenges will take some beating...

A while back, Tanabata, of In Spring It Is The Dawn , was idly musing about starting a Murakami Challenge.  As you may know, I'm a big Murakami fan, so I was on board from the start - apparently, after a plug from Murakami's UK publishers, so are half the people in the blogosphere now.  I hope poor Tanabata knows what she's let herself in for...

Anyhow, there are several levels to aim for, and I'm rather optimistically planning to be Toru, by reading five of his books this year.  Long term, I'm going for the Super Frog though, which means reading everything he's had published in English; I'm not that far off, with just the non-fiction and 1Q84 to go (when it's actually released!).  You'll be pleased to hear that I'm already up and running with this challenge - first review coming soon :)

Booklover Book Reviews' Joanne is once again running the Aussie Author Challenge, which I successfully completed last year, managing to finish nine books by five different Australian authors.  I suspect that it may be a tad harder this year - I am going for the True Blue level, which means I have to read 12 books by 9 different Aussie writers!

Despite living in Australia, I buy very few Aussie books; anyone living here will know why that is :(  Therefore, I suspect that this will be a very library-dependent challenge...

Now here's a challenge I shouldn't have too many issues with!  Bethany at Words, Words, Words is running a Victorian Literature Challenge, something which is very much in my area of interest.  The top level here is the Desperate Remedies Level - 15 Victorian-era works in a year!!!  It sounds a lot, but I have copies of The Pickwick Papers, Jude the Obscure, North and South, Antony Trollope's Autobiography and a couple of Dostoyevsky's works waiting to be read, and I was planning to reread Trollope's Palliser series in the second half of 2011.  When you also factor in a possible e-reader purchase, with all the copyright-free novels in English, French and German that entails... let's just say that I think I'll be able to pull it off :)

As well as these three challenges, I have another couple of events which I'm sure I'll be joining in with.  Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, wrapping up at the end of January and, hopefully, running again later this year, is one, and Maree at Just Add Books is planning to run a short New Zealand Literature Challenge in a few months time, so I'm hoping to make time for that.

I think that's quite enough to be getting on with for now...

Saturday 1 January 2011

2011 Challenges

Here's how I'm faring with the challenges I've signed up for this year :)

Murakami Challenge - January 1st, 2011 - December 31st, 2011
-Toru Level (read any three Haruki Murakami books)
1) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World
2) The Elephant Vanishes
3) Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
4) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Book One, Book Two, Book Three)

Aussie Author Challenge - January 1st, 2011 - December 31st, 2011
- True Blue Level (read twelve books by nine different Australian writers)

Victorian Literature Challenge - January 1st, 2011 - December 31st, 2011
- Desperate Remedies Level (read fifteen works from the Victorian era)
1) An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
2) The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
3) Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
4) Plays and Petersburg Tales by Nikolai Gogol
6) Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
8) Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome
9) Rudin by Igor Turgenev
10) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
12) Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane
12a) Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot
14) Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
15) Adam Bede by George Eliot
16) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
17) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
18) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
19) Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
20) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
21) Der Schimmelreiter by Theodor Storm
22) Die Leute von Seldwyla (Band 1) by Gottfried Keller
23) Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
24) Frau Jenny Treibel by Theodor Fontane
25) Leutnant Gustl by Arthur Schitzler
26) Die Glücksritter by Joseph von Eichendorff
27) Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
28) Bahnwärter Thiel & Der Apostel by Gerhart Hauptman
29) Der Schuß von der Kanzel by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
30) Die schwarze Spinne by Jeremias Gotthelf
31) Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
32) The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

Japanese Literature Challenge 5 - June 1st, 2011 - January 31st, 2012
- Read one work of Japanese literature
2) Silence by Shusaku Endo 
3) Sorekara (And Then) by Natsume Soseki
4) Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami 
5) Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
6) A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe 
7) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Book One, Book Two, Book Three) 
8) Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
9) The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
10) Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

***Mission Completion*** ;) 

2011 Reading List

Click on the link to read the review :)

123 - The Fix by Nick Earls
122 - Popular Music by Mikael Niemi
121 - Open Door by Iosi Havilio
120 - 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3)
119 - Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
118 - The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
117 - Der Engel schwieg by Heinrich Böll
116 - Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
115 - Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig
114 - Das Erdbeben in Chili by Heinrich von Kleist
113 - Die Marquise von O... by Heinrich von Kleist
112 - Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist
111 - Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
110 - Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde by F.C. Delius
109 - Die schwarze Spinne by Jeremias Gotthelf
108 - Der Schuß von der Kanzel by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
107 - Das Schloß by Franz Kafka (Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Director's Cut)
106 - Bahnwärter Thiel & Der Apostel by Gerhart Hauptmann
105 - Und sagte kein einziges Wort by Heinrich Böll
104 - All the Lights (Die Nacht, die Lichter) by Clemens Meyer
103 - Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht by Alois Hotschnig
102 - A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe
101 - All That I Am by Anna Funder
100 - Die Elixiere des Teufels by E.T.A. Hoffmann
99 - That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
98 - Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
97 - Jenseitsnovelle by Matthias Politycki
96 - The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
95 - The White Trail by Fflur Dafydd
94 - Violin Lessons by Arnold Zable
93 - Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
92 - Spirit of Progress by Steven Carroll
91 - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
90 - Sorekara (And Then) by Natsume Soseki
89 - Scraps of Heaven by Arnold Zable
88 - Mathias Bichler by Lena Christ
87 - Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka
86 - Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen by Lena Christ
85 - Die Glücksritter by Joseph von Eichendorff
84 - Leutnant Gustl & Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler
83 - Frau Jenny Treibel by Theodor Fontane
82 - Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
81 - Literary Theory - A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler
80 - The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
79 - Novelle by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
78 - Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
77 - Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
76 - Die Leute von Seldwyla (Band 1) by Gottfried Keller
75 - Der Schimmelreiter by Theodor Storm
74 - The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
73 - Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
72 - North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
71 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
70 - Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
69 - Adam Bede by George Eliot
68 - Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
67 - The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
66 - The Lost Life by Steven Carroll
65 - The Children's Bach by Helen Garner
64 - The Reasons I Won't Be Coming by Elliot Perlman
63 - Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau by F.C. Delius
62 - Sartoris by William Faulkner
61 - Silence by Shusaku Endo
60 - Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot
59 - Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre by Goethe
58 - The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata
57 - Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
56 - Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor
55 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button... by F. Scott Fitzgerald
54 - Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen
53 - Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane
52 - Praise by Andrew McGahan
51 - The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai
50 - My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
49 - The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll
48 - When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
47 - Storm's Short Stories and Novellas by Theodor Storm
46 - Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
45 - The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 - Liebe deinen Nächsten by Erich Maria Remarque
43 - The Spare Room by Helen Garner
42 - The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow by Thea Astley
41 - 1988 by Andrew McGahan
40 - The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
39 - Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
38 - Du Côté de chez Swann by Marcel Proust
37 - Rudin by Ivan Turgenev
36 - Plumb by Maurice Gee
35 - Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome
34 - The Rope of Man by Witi Ihimaera
33 - Kafka's Short Stories by Franz Kafka
32 - Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
31 - The Bone People by Keri Hulme
30 - Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann
29 - The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
28 - The Rector & The Doctor's Family by Margaret Oliphant
27 - Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
26 - The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
25 - Autofiction by Hitomi Kanehara
24 - The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes by Dan Holloway
23 - Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
22 - Sanctuary by Edith Wharton
21 - Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
20 - An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
19 - Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
17 - Rabbit, Run by John Updike
14 - Plays and Petersburg Tales by Nikolai Gogol
12a - Three men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
11 - The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
10 - An Open Swimmer by Tim Winton
9 - Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
8 - Solar by Ian McEwan
7 - The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
6 - The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe
5 - The Art of the Engine Driver by Steven Carroll
4 - An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
3 - Amerika by Franz Kafka
2 - The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
1 - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World by Haruki Murakami