Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) by Silvia Moreno Garcia

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Author Silvia Moreno Garcia
Book Review
Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019)
by Silvia Moreno Garcia


   Gods of Jade and Shadow is a jazz-age magically-realist bildungswoman-fairy tale about a young woman from an impoverished branch of wealthy Yucatan area family, cursing her fate at her plight, when she awakens a Mayan God of Death, imprisoned for the past several decades by his evil twin with the connivance of the mean old patriarch of the protagonist, Casiopeia Tun. Casiopeia is a pretty garden variety hero, with super high diversity points as a half-Mayan half-Mexican heroine, even is Casiopeia behaves more like a contemporary American teen then her biographical details would dictate.

  More power to her, Moreno-Garcia is obviously going for a modern day fairy tale, and I thought it was pretty good.  The ambition of it, the creativity of the narrative.  I'll look forward to future books, and I wouldn't be surprised by a movie or television version in the near future.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Christmas Oratorio (1984) by Goran Tunström


Book Review
The Christmas Oratorio (1984)
by Goran Tunström

Replaces: Possession by A.S. Byatt

  The Christmas Oratorio is a multi-generational family drama set in Sweden between 1930's and the present day (the 80's.)  The common theme linking the three generations- the father, the son, who qualifies as the protagonist, and a third generation.  The Nordensson family suffers tragedy from go, when the family matriarch dies in a freak bicycle accident, trampled by cattle on her way to the Church to perform the title track.

  Aron, the father, gives up the family farm and emigrates to the city, where he finds work minding the liquor supply of a local hotelier.  Sidner, the son (Aron is the father), has an unusual childhood in pre-World War II- I'm assuming it's Stockholm but I guess it could be Malmo or really any city in Sweden.   Sidner is a sad little boy with a weird little friend.  He hooks up with an older bohemian broad who is obsessed with a local explorer- they end up producing the third generation.  The father becomes increasingly erratic and leaves for New Zealand to meet a spinster- she becomes the last major character of the story.

  It's a classic second edition of the 1001 Books list pick- an underrepresented area (Sweden/Scandinavia) but the selection is a pedestrian one in terms of diversity: white, christian, men.

The Soft Machine (1961) by William S. Burroughs


Book Review
The Soft Machine (1961)
by William S. Burroughs

  One of my signal accomplishments in terms of personal development was moving from being a voracious reader of the science fiction section of my local suburban public library at 14/15 to being a reader of Beats like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg by 16.  The Beats were my entrance point to world literary culture, and it was something I accomplished in the pre-internet era without any help or formal guidance.  I had the good fortune to grow up in the Bay Area, though not in San Francisco or Oakland, and I figured out how to get to the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where you could sit in a room full of Beats and read to your hearts content (You still can!)

  Burroughs was my favorite Beat- I'm not a poetry fan, so Ginsberg was out, and Kerouac was too obvious and cliche.   I was a fan of Naked Lunch, Queer and Junky but after that I lost interest- I wasn't that into the Beats, and once you leave his big three Burroughs revels in incoherence, which was my juvenile perception of The Soft Machine, book one of this proto-cyberpunk Nova Trilogy.

   Recently though I was thinking that perhaps The Soft Machine would sound better as an Audiobook, giving me a reason to revisit something that was too difficult for me to grasp as a teenager, the last time I encountered a physical copy of The Soft Machine: either in City Lights itself or Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. 

   The six hour Audiobook features a full hour long introduction discussing the tortured textual history- it's also marketed as the "full restored" version of the original 1961 text- but that's hardly something that casual listeners will follow.  As a casual listener myself, I barely followed it.  It's worth noting that Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg used to verbally perform sketches in their pre-fame New York days- and I've read that Burroughs was fond of working out his material aloud, so the Audiobook facilitates that concordance.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Memory Police (2019) by Yōko Ogawa

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Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa
Book Review
The Memory Police (2019)
by Yoko Ogawa

  The 2019 National Book Awards Longlist: Translated Literature was announced last week.  Ten books made the list:

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections by Eliane Brum, translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price

and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.   I already listened to the Audiobook of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.  I've got Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa on my Kindle- I think that book- about the Syrian civil war is a lock for the shortlist and maybe a winner- it's shocking and amazing and I'm only halfway through.  I may be able to land Crossing and Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming from the library- for the rest of the books I'm going to wait and see about the shortlist.

  I was already listening to The Memory Police Audiobook when the National Book Award: Translated Literature longlist was announced, so that was mild thrill.  I was interested by the reviews referencing dystopian literature and intrigued by a Japanese language novelist who isn't Murakami or Endo.    I think The Memory Police is meant to be an allegory of some sort- it's about a woman living on an isolated island where the government is making everyday items disappear, one by one- everyone is required to destroy all their objects and that follows by everyone forgetting that the disappeared objects ever existed.  People who remember things that have been disappeared are hunted by the Memory Police in a manner that evokes the extirpation of the Jewish population in Europe outside Germany by the Nazis.

    The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, so the depiction of a "present" without internet connected computers and smart phones is not a purposeful anachronism.  Despite the seeming promise of violent action, The Memory Police is quiet to the point of somnolent- passive resistance is the order of the day, and all of the violence takes place off stage.

  The third act introduces some genuinely surprising twists, but the ending  is more like the rest of the book, abstract and elliptical. Which is not a bad thing- in fact- that is how you know it's literature and not genre.  Ogawa is a major writer in Japan- where she's won "every major literary award" but English translations have seemingly proceeded in random fashion. I'm sure a win here would do much to bolster interest in her books in translation- probably the strength of her international reputation will get her to the shortlist, but I wouldn't pick The Memory Police as a prize winner.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013) by Haruki Murakami


Book Review
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)
by Haruki Murakami

  The amazing fact about this Audiobook is that it is narrated by a reader in English with a heavy Japanese accent.  The explanation I heard from a friend is that it must be a situation where it was supposed to be like the author- Murakami speaks in heavily accented English- reading the book to you, but I found it incredibly distracting.

 Aside from the accented narration, everything else is classic Murakami: An emotionally shut-off man living alone in Japan, puzzling over unresolved issues from his childhood- here the central issue is a close knit group of friends the narrator had in high school and the fact that they expelled him suddenly without explaining why.

  There is also hints of the supernatural, parallel universes and carefully described food preparation.  Missing in this book are actual supernatural characters, cats and/or owls and references to jazz.  At times, I feel like Murakami has only written one book, and he just adjusts the various ingredients, like a chef experiencing with a recipe he knows by heart.

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