It’s been long enough since a major update that I think an endless stream of review-type paragraphs would be a little bit overboard. So here are the highlights: I finally read James Baldwin and was not disappointed; Teju Cole makes me feel like an idiot; and Americanah wasn’t as good as I thought it would be. Below are some more in-depth thoughts on some of these titles.*
Basically, I hope all of you guys are reading well, and hitting on some books you think are as amazing as I thought some of these titles were. Without them, and a half-gallon of locally-produced organic eggnog, life wouldn’t be nearly so good at this moment. So if I can contribute in any small way to your reading list, the work of this blog is done.
With that lofty goal in mind, here goes:
The Bridegroom Was a Dog
Summing up this book in one word, I’d have to say: bizzare. Bridegroom was originally published in Japanese in 1998, and the New Yorker apparently loved it, too (an aberrant pick on their part, IMO). It’s less a novella than a very long short story, and can be read in one sitting – therefore, much is missing that we would rather have spelled out. Yet somehow the work explores ideas surrounding community, sex, homosexuality, bestiality, decency, and discomfort.
Bridegroom is the tale of a town in semi-rural Japan that gets a new, young teacher, Miss Mitsuko Kitamura. Her idiosyncratic and uncomfortable teaching methods, initially a draw for the children and gossip fodder for their mothers, take a backseat to her affair with a man who behaves like a dog. Literally.
Tawada describes the man, Taro, as a distant and mysterious stranger, who shows up unexpectedly – almost an otherworldly apparition – as sniffing and licking Mitsuko, and occasionally walking around on all fours. He moves in. Taro is, we realize, the human correlate for a canine bridegroom in one the fables Mitsuko has told the children in her class. He seems to have no past, until a few unsavory details emerge.
I won’t spoil it, but nor can I describe the book with much justice. It’s extremely weird, but in a way that ensures you’ll still be thinking about it weeks later. Tawada’s new book came out in November (Memoirs of a Polar Bear), so it’s probably safe to say that she has a preoccupation with inter-species interaction. The unembellished, nonchalant prose and the curious events of Bridegroom buoy the reader along on a ride that provokes and confuses. It’s a story that bears (hah) rereading.
Showa 1939 – 1944: A History of Japan
Having read the first installment of this tetralogy of graphic novels, I was eager to continue with this (second) volume. The Showa series is author Shigeru Mizuki’s autobiographical account of the years 1926 – 1985, under the Showa reign in Japan. Mizuki intersperses exaggeratedly cartoonish memories of his own experience with highly realistic interpretations of pivotal scenes from history.
This installment privileges the heavy war years. Mizuki is deployed, along with virtually all other young men in Japan at the time. For a budding artist, the war years are less than kind. The Japanese perspective Mizuki offers shows the beginning of the quest for Asiatic domination, the progression of an increasingly authoritarian government, and the cultural pressures surrounding citizens during wartime.
Mizuki is sent to the south Pacific, where he tempers the horrors of war with humorous sequences of army food (eating bugs?) and his own absent-mindedness (performing his chores as usual during an air strike). But the reality of his situation weighs heavily on Mizuki, both as a young man and as the elderly sensei reflecting on these events. Showa Vol. II interrogates battles, events, and policies that, nearly gone from living memory, still have much to teach us.
Notes of a Native Son
For years, I’ve been thinking: I need to read Baldwin. As so often happens, this intellectual obligation grew to loom over and obscure the reasons behind it.
Happily, Baldwin’s own words returned me to the reality on the ground: his books are a record of his amazing mind, his groundbreaking articulation of now-assumed thoughts on race, and (tragically, far less talked about) his snarky hilariousness.
Known and Strange Things
This book convinced me that Cole deserves the myriad praise he’s received over the past six months or so. These essays prove that he’s brilliant, in addition to being insatiably curious, artistically edgy (remaking the Structured Essay to his liking in this collection), and a cool photographer and human being. This is one of the best books of the year.
(See my previous post for more on this cool poetry collection.)
This book needed to be written. I’m oddly glad Aziz was the unlikely catalyst for it.
This was a pretty intense disappointment, since Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my favorite books of all time (not to mention what a badass Adichie is as a human being). But the heavy-handed, repetitive, clichéd prose was not to my taste – the characters in this book are comparatively underdeveloped, the love story overwrought. She uses the descriptor “almond-eyed” at least twice, when I think we can all agree that even once is too much (see the amazing Teju Cole on eyes… this twitter tirade also brought to us in N&ST). The subject matters here – immigration and emigration, culture shock, inter- and intraracial dating, the post-9/11 era, American vs. Nigerian (vs. British) lifestyle – are ambitious, to be sure. But 600 pages later, I was left praying that the next thing we see from Adichie returns to the meticulously researched, beautiful prose of her earlier effort.
At the Bottom of the River
Everyone (probably on planet earth) should listen to the podcast that initially interested me in this collection. The NYer features Edwidge Danticat reading two of the stories in this collection, with such feeling, such perfect elocution, that one can only believe this is the way God intended the stories to be imbibed (I’ve listened to it again half a dozen times or more). If you’re feeling iffy, just listen to the first story; “Girl” is short, but it’ll knock your pants off.
Kincaid’s language is lyrical and fluid. Her stories are grounded in the physical realm, but their fantastical elements leave the reader reeling, rereading, wondering how the hell they are feeling so much. I’ll definitely be looking for more from her.
* you’ll note that I’m eschewing the ratings; I don’t really think it’s fair, given the breadth of genres and time periods I’m dealing with.
Finally, a few other titles from the last few months:
An Artist of the Floating World
Eichmann in Jerusalem
The Perfect Storm
All of the above were also extremely solid picks (I enjoyed them all; I can only say that the Arendt is obviously by far the densest of the bunch).
And that’s it for now. The next few weeks will entail holiday travel to PA and a long hard look at last year’s New Year’s resolutions (along with the status of this year’s post-gift-giving bank account). Happy 2017, y’all. Stay warm in your soul.