Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Kitchen (1993) by Banana Yoshimoto

Image result for banana yoshimoto
Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto)
Book Review
Kitchen (1988)
 by Banana Yoshimoto

Replaces: The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

  I honestly feel like Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto's early 1990's cross-over hit, was added after someone pointed out that the edtiors of the 1001 Books list had included a book by a French woman about living in Japan, but had managed to include not a single Japanese female author.  Japan as a whole is basically represented by Haruki Murakami with a handful of other authors in the 1001 Books list. Yoshimoto is the first, and I think the only Japanese woman to make it on to the list.

  Mikage Suraki is the narrator, she's a young Japanese woman stuggling to overcome the death of her beloved grandmother.  She comes under the influence of a neighbor, Yuiche Tanabe, a young man a few years her junior, and his transgender (male to female) mother, Eriko Tanabe, who owns and runs a local gay bar.  This is pretty progressive stuff for Japan circa 1980, which isn't especially known for embracing LGBT issues, and the laconic prose style makes for easy reading.

  Yoshimoto has been prolific in her native Japanese, but almost none of her more recent books have been translated into English.   Seems to me that puts her in the category of a one hit wonder, and not that huge a hit. 

Mason & Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Mason & Dixon (1997)
 by Thomas Pynchon

   I own a first edition hardback of Mason & Dixon-  one of Pynchon's representative titles in the first edition of 1001 Books, but dropped in the second edition in favor of Faceless Killers (1991) by Henning Mankell.   I can hardly remember anything from my initial reading back in 1997-1998- "too old timey!" I remember thinking, since Pynchon insists on using his own version of the non-standard orthography and capitalization that was common in the 18th century, the time of the book.

   Twenty years later, I've added the entire 18th century canon to my mental library, re-read all of Pynchon's earlier books and set up a situation where I was able to read Mason & Dixon in small portions, always at my ease.  You would think that I would have enjoyed it much more the second time through, but no.  Mason & Dixon was almost as impenetrable as I found it the first time.  I guess you could say I got more of the jokes and puns, but if there was any deeper meaning to be gleaned, I did not glean it. 

  Pynchon's re-telling of the adventures of English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon does cover their famous American line, but it also has adventures in Africa, in England and on the open seas.    Other subjects include, "the call of the West, the histories of women, North Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the after-life, the eleven days lost to the Gregorian calendar, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure."  (from the Wikipedia page on Mason & Dixon)

    What is referred to as the "inexact narrative structure" could also be described as a bewildering multiplicity, far beyond what Pynchon put forward in V and Gravity's Rainbow, to name two of his other big books.   At times, Mason & Dixon embraces literary pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism in the same page.   Even describing the plot is exhausting- again- see the Wikipedia page, where someone managed to describe each of seventy eight episodes.  Maybe Pynchon isn't one of my favorite authors, after all.   The fact is that I haven't enjoyed Vineland or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not looking forward to Against the Day- an addition to the second 1001 Books list.   I do see The Crying of Lot 49, V and Gravity's Rainbow as all time canon level classics, and I enjoyed The Bleeding Edge Audiobook- I would have LOVED to have gotten my hands on a Mason & Dixon Audiobook, but the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't have a copy.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

Book Review
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852)
by Herman Melville

    Herman Melville and Henry James are two American authors I've singled out for further reading- checking out the non canonical titles and revisiting the hits that I didn't quite get the first time around.  Basically, all of Henry James passed me by the first time through- I'm hoping that the Audiobook format might make the experience more fun than actually reading Henry James- which is really not very much fun at all.   With Melville I'm more focused on revisiting the non-canonical titles- Melville is one of the best examples of an artist moving into the canon after a lifetime of relative obscurity.   Melville had a couple of hits with his early books, basically travelogues of the sailing life circa the mid 19th century.  Moby Dick was his masterpiece but it was sorely underappreciated when it was released, and typically the story of Melville is that after it flopped he got a job as a customs inspector and lived in obscurity until his death.

  Not true! He continued to publish in a variety of formats after Moby Dick- including The Encantadas, a novella and two novels: Israel Potter and The Confidence Man.   Pierre; or The Ambiguities is an incredibly strange novel- combining elements of gothic fiction with a bildungsroman.  The elements are the wealthy scion of an ancient American family, his still attractive mother, who he calls "Sister," his fiance and a mysterious half-sister who emerges from the ether and throws Pierre Glendenning- the protagonist but not narrator- into a positive tizzy.

  There is no way to take Pierre at face value- only if the reader is familiar with the conventions of 18th century gothic fiction and the state of American literature in the early 19th century can one begin to develop an appreciation, and even then it takes.... some gumption.   Here, the Audiobook format was crucial- no way I would have ever sat down and read it as a physical book.

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