The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

This Should Be a Reading Challenge

18 More Amazing Books You Can Read in a Day. 

18 more?

Electric literature has two posts featuring Brilliant and Amazing books you can read in a day.  I have read a few titles on the lists and agree that they are either brilliant or amazing.

Wouldn’t this make and excellent reading challenge.  Maybe for June, that month when people are swamped with paperwork or grading they have to get done before the end of term when they can go on vacation where they’ll have the time for a long summer read.

What do you think?

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I suppose I’m like most Americans in that I know little of Korea’s history.  We know the war, at least the version of it we saw on television’s M*A*S*H, and the Korean miracle–the economic powerhouse South Korea has become.  But anything in between, certainly the dark chapters many South Korean’s would like to keep buried, we don’t know.

This has begun to rapidly change lately, for me in part because of Korean literature like Shin Kyung-sook’s wonderful novel Please Look After Mom and Han Kang’s equally wonderful book The Vegetarian. Add to this list Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, which sheds light on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the massacre that followed.

Never heard of it?  Me either. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Like The Vegetarian, the story in Human Acts is focused on a character we never get to see first hand or through a first-person narrative.  Here that character is a middle-school boy Dong-ho who is killed in the aftermath of the uprising when hundreds of protesters were massacred by South Korea’s military in the city of Gwangju.  Dong-ho should not have been there.  He was too young, the youngest among the protesters and the youngest of those killed.  Those who knew him, and a few others who simply saw his photograph afterwards, tell their stories through a series of narratives–first, second and third person by the way.

Human Acts shattered some of my illusions about South Korea.  I did not know that at least up until the 1980’s when the massacre took place that South Korea was a full-fledged military dictatorship rivaling North Korea in its oppression of free speech and free assembly and the use of torture to ensure compliance with the state.

One thing I admired about Human Acts was the portrayal of torture’s aftermath, the way it affects victims for the remainder of their lives.  There is no escaping the fact that it’s value does not lie in gathering information but in suppressing dissent.

This is the second time Han Kang has kept her readers from direct contact with the central character of her novel.  In both The Vegetarian and Human Acts the reader circles around the character we are most interested in.  We hear from those who know Dong-ho slightly and those who knew him well, but just as it was with Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian we never hear from Dong-ho directly nor do we ever witness him alone.  This frustrates many readers but its a device at least as old as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights wherein we never once witness Catherine and Heathcliff unfiltered through the eyes of someone else.  Theirs is a great romance that the reader never gets to see first hand as neither character is ever presented except through someone else’s first person narration.

What is Han Kang up to in her books?  I think this could make for an excellent book club discussion or perhaps a paper for a graduate seminar.  Does not seeing the central character first hand make it more possible for the reader to insert whomever we want to, or need to, into that role? If we knew exactly who that character was, would we be more or less likely to identify with that character or to identify that character with someone we care about outside of the book.

While Shin Kyung-sook follows this structure for most of Please Look After Mom, she does give the title character a portion of the book–the reader does see a bit of what happened to the vanished mother.  Her book is no less memorable or moving for doing so.

I will say that I found this worked better in The Vegetarian than it does in Human Acts.  It may be that there were too many different points of view in Human Acts while there were just three in The Vegetarian.  Han Kang has a wider ranging thesis in Human Acts–the personal story of Dong-ho, the suppressed history of the uprising and the massacre that followed, the effects of torture, the collective societal denial of history.  Dong-ho becomes a tool for bringing all of this together while Yeong-hye, in The Vegetarian, always remained a person in the reader’s mind.  It was Yeong-hye who haunted me after finishing The Vegetarian. It’s history that haunts me after reading Human Acts.  One book asks how this could happen to one woman, while the other asks how this could happen to us all.

If you have not read Han Kang yet, you really should.  She’s very good; so is Shin Kyung-sook.  But, in the end I’d recommend The Vegetarian over Human Acts.  

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest

While Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest was not exactly the biography I was looking for, it is an entertaining, educational read that has much to offer both fans of the artist and general readers.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of Becoming Judy Chicago more or less on a whim to discover one of my favorite reads of 2007.  Turns out I enjoy reading critical biographies of artists.  (Finding a new sub-genre you enjoy is one benefit of reading outside your box.)

Ms. Secrest’s book on Modigliani is not really a critical biography.  My loose definition of a critical biography is a book that looks at an artist’s work in an attempt to illuminate how it came to be, to examine how it works, and to evaluate its overall quality.  Of course, much of the artists personal life will be covered but it is not the focus of a critical biography.  Ms. Secrest covers all of Modigiliani’s life which is her main focus.  She does spend plenty of time discussing how he came to be an artist and explaining both how is art works as well as why it is significant, but the life of the man takes precedence.  Hence the title, I suppose.
It’s an interesting life.  If you were one of the many people participating in the recent Paris in July by day-dreaming about being an artist in Paris during the heyday of Monet or Picasso, you will find plenty to enjoy in Modigliani: A Life.   Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris from Italy, in the early days of the 20th century.  He lived among the major artists of his day, became friends with Pablo Picasso, was the center of attention in avant-garde social sets, and lived la vie Boheme on nothing a year.   He struggled as a sculptor for years until he found his signature style as a painter.  While he never became rich or famous during his lifetime, he did live to enjoy some success before dying  at the age of 36 from tubercular meningitis.   In Modigliani: A Life you’ll find a rich story of struggles with art, family, women, and day to day existence in Paris of the early 20th century, when the art scene left Montmarte for cheaper quarters in Montparnasse.

Ms. Secrest attempts to correct several aspects of Modigliani’s reputation, namely that he helped bring about his own early death through excessive drink and the use of narcotics.  She builds a strong case.  What struck me most is the idea that he drank as a means to control the symptoms of tuberculosis which he kept secret until just before his death.  His fear that he would have been ostracized by just about everyone if his condition became known was probably correct.

If, like me, you’re looking for information about his paintings, you’ll find it towards the end of Ms. Secrest’s book.  Modigliani was at the height of his skill during the final year of his life.  He had been painting portraits of friends for several years, he worked with anyone who would sit for him without pay because he had no money to hire models, but these did not sell.  In Modigliani’s day, if the sitter didn’t buy the portrait, no one did.  Once he moved on to painting nudes, his work began to sell, and he painted what many argue are his best works.
Like Picasso and many other artists living in Paris at the time, Modigliani was heavily and clearly influenced by the African masks which were beginning to appear on the art market in Europe.  Ms. Secrest writes about the mask like faces in Modigliani’s work:
“The more he (Modigliani) paints individuals the more their particular features fade into the background, and the more faces seem encased in a smooth shell as hard as a carapace.  As Pierre Daix observed, the comparison between Picasso’s revised portrait of Gertude Stein and Modigliani’s mature style is apt.  Modigliani, however, never took his experiments with features further than that. Unlike Picasso, who has already turned his women’s faces into beak-like appendages by the time he is working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Modigliani’s noses stay where they were put, the mouths fall beneath them, there are no double profiles or eyes placed in the middle of foreheads. Picasso’s interest is schematic, to see how far he can rearrange facial features and still have them be recognizable.  Modigliani’s interest is otherwise. He is trying to simplify and reduce to the irreducible minimum the essence of a personality without actually losing it altogether.  The masks of the commedia dell’arte wore, as Pierre Louis wrote in The Italian Comedy, “an indefinable expression as full of possibilities as of impossibilities, like the Mona Lisa, which every generation interprets differently.” Modigliani’s self-imposed challenge, to see how far he could venture into abstraction without ending in either anonymity or caricature, must be one of the most difficult any artist since the Renaissance has attempted.”

So why is Modigliani not held in the high esteem less able painters like Picasso are or recognized alongside the great painters of his generation like Matisse?  Ms. Secrest blames three major culprits.  The first is the author’s own personal reputation.  Modigliani’s private life was one of near complete chaos which gave him a lasting bad reputation deserved or not.  Second, because his work is so easy to fake and because he did not keep accurate records of the work he did, he became one of the  most frequently counterfeited artists of the 20th century.  For a long time, there was really no way to be sure you were buying a Modigliani.  Finally, his artwork itself worked against a lasting reputation.  Because Modigliani worked to create his own signature style, he was not included in the early narrative of 20th century art.  He is neither a cubist nor an abstract painter nor does he fit within any other school of art.  His work stands outside the rest and was often left out of the early histories of 20th century art as a result.

Fans of Modigliani, like myself, can hope that as more and more people begin to see how inferior Picasso’s work is to that of Matisse, that other excellent painters like Modigliani will be given their due.  Ms. Secrest’s book is a step in the right direction.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I remain a fan of Modigliani, but I’ve become a devote of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, we don’t have to pick one or the other, we can enjoy them all.