Sunday, March 9, 2008

Treading Water

Every so often I find myself with too many choices. This week has been one of those times. The week starts like any other. I choose a book and begin to read. But something just isn't right. The book isn't moving quickly enough, it's too vague, the author takes his time getting to the point, the dialogue seems forced, there's too much dialogue or not enough. I don't want to read about Eskimos or endangered species or hobgoblins after what happened on Monday or didn't happen on Tuesday. Suddenly, though nothing has changed, the story's fire has dimmed while another book on the shelf starts blazing with light. So I pick up that book; I'll finish the first one, sure I will...just let me read this one first. Suddenly I look around and find that the stack by my bedside is about to topple over with the half-read and the put aside. That's what happened this morning. I took a good look at the bedside stand.

The book that's been there the longest (or at least the oldest one I'll admit to) is The Duke's Children. You'll remember that I started that back before the New Year. It was to be the last book that I read in 2007 but instead was pushed aside by the glittering possibilities of 2008's reading. Steve has been at me non-stop about this fickleness towards one of his favorite authors. Even I had thought my romance with the book was over but this morning I woke up feeling flushed with nostalgia and moved it back to the top of the stack. Maybe this time I'll follow through. Yes, definitely this time.

Next we have two books that I started before going on vacation a few weeks ago, Garcia's Heart by Liam Durcan and Wise Children by Angela Carter. Garcia's Heart is a first novel and was recommended to me by The Mama Chan. She has never steered me wrong and this book is no exception. It is good. Not flashy, just very solidly good. It's about a neurologist who travels to The Hague to sit in on the trial for war crimes of his old mentor, Hernan Garcia. He knew Garcia and his family in Canada, where the Honduran cardiologist had settled down to run a small store and forget his past. The protagonist cannot reconcile this man with the one portrayed at the tribunal and neither can we, the reader. There is also a subplot involving the protagonist and Garcia's daughter, who used to be his lover. This is not nearly as interesting as the main plot and is probably what keeps me from finishing it. I don't care about this romance and my reading gets derailed every time the writer switches over to it. What I want to know is the secret that Garcia's heart holds.

Wise Children is quite the opposite. It is filled with flash and glitter, dancing girls, ponies walking on their hind legs, magicians making beautiful girls disappear, etc. It's a three ring circus in other words. I spent two round trips to work on the subway reading it and here's what I know. The main characters are two elderly, bastard twins who made their living in vaudeville. Eccentricity is everywhere. It is just the kind of story that I love, so what happened? I went on my vacation, leaving it behind and here it still sits. But, yeah, I'm going to read it...soon...

And with that, we arrive at the top strata. You're not feeling ill are you? We do have oxygen handy, should you need it. At the top we have two books, King Dork by Frank Portman and Lost In Translation by Eva Hoffman. I can't say very much yet about King Dork; I've barely cracked it open. It's a teen read that caught my eye because the main character has his life turned around by Catcher In the Rye. I'm bound to have more to say later.

Lost in Translation is a beautifully written memoir of a Polish girl who moves to Canada in her early teens and finds herself untethered by the experience. I'm about half way through reading it and am a bit in awe of both the writing and the girl's experience. I could open the book at random and find something worth quoting. For example:

The yellowed pages I take out of the library draw me into them as into a trance--but only on the condition that they create a convincing mimetic illusion. I feel subtly cheated by Alice in Wonderland, because it is all pretend, a game, and of what interest is that? My reading is all mixed up, and it's not so long after I read Alice that I'm given War and Peace. This is something I should read carefully, my parents convey to me, a classic, something very important--but the usually discouraging invocation of duty has no effect on me this time. I don't notice that War and Peace is a book, something I'm
reading. Surely, this is just life.

What's the problem, then?, you ask. You love it, read it, you say. Aha, here's where you are not me. Although I love it, I'm finding that it reads slowly, because I must stop and think about each passage. I can read the passage above, for example, set the book down and drift away in my own thoughts for a half hour or more. Can one be thrown off by reading something too damned good? I find that I don't want to pick it up because I'll only put it back down. (I never finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles because I loved it so much I couldn't bear for it to end. I still have two pages left after 5 years of reading it.)

There are also those books that are getting very close to joining the pile and may by the end of today. A new one by Steven Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter, because it's very, very shiny and Oblomov, because some book I've read recently kept referencing it. Also drifting towards the stack is a book by Stephen Fry, because I signed it out from the library and it's winking at me suggestively, not to mention whatever new thing that Steve shoves at me.
I guess the only answer is to brew a giant pot of coffee; the Camels are just not going to cut it tonight.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I feel dirty

About a year ago, I went on Stevereads and said a few kind words about Out by Natsuo Kirino. Kirino is a popular, so the dust jacket claims, Japanese mystery author. Out was her first book translated into English and, to be frank, it was a rush. Four female factory workers band together to dismember and dispose of the remains of their friend's husband before anyone catches on to the murder. It was gritty realism at its best, full of physical and psychological details and it really got under my skin.

The latest book to be translated is Grotesque, brand new in paperback. I'm still trying to digest this novel but like the veal scallopini they served us in college, it just won't stay down. I feel as if I've been dragged through every cesspool and love hotel in Tokyo and am none the wiser for it. So break out the penicillin and join me on a run through the plot and characters.

I can't remember the first narrator's name and I'm not sure we were ever given it, so let's just call her Sis. Sis is the older of two biracial siblings. Her younger sister Yuriko is a perfect blend of genes and is the most beautiful creature that any human being ever laid eyes on. Sis is described as unattractive and is therefore wildly jealous of Yuriko. She becomes warped by this jealousy. When her dad takes the family back to Switzerland, Sis stays behind and wins a place in the Q School of Girls. She does this mainly to get away from her sister, whom she describes as a monster. At Q school, she meets the other main characters of the novel, Kazue and Mitsuru. Kazue is the classic dork. She tries too hard. She does the wrong thing in any social situation. All the other girls make fun of her, but she doesn't have the self-understanding to see it. She wants to be the smartest girl in the class but just isn't smart enough. Mitsuru is her opposite, smart and well accepted.

Everything starts to unravel when Yuriko returns from Europe and joins Q School. Yuriko is dumb as toast but gets in because her beauty charms the professor in charge. She immediately causes trouble for everybody, not maliciously but because of her perfection. For example, whereas Sis was previously ignored, she is now the center of attention because no one can believe that the two girls are related, Beauty and the Beast. Kazue falls into the web formed by Sis's hatred and ends up ruined. I'm not sure how Mitsuru ties in, but I do know it's all the fault of Sis and Yuriko.

Years go by and the girls are grown. Yuriko, clearly understanding her worth, has become a prostitute. She states in her journal that she hates men but loves sex. She loves the power her beauty has over them, but claims that it only lasts until she gives in, then she must find another man. Kazue has a Corporate job but is not satisfied. She wants to be loved for her body and since that is unlikely, goes into prostitution as a second job. Both women end up murdered by one of their johns. Sis becomes the center of attention again, and again it's because of Yuriko (with the added kick of having been schoolmates with Kazue.)

The problem with this book is twofold. First off, the women are brutally unpleasant. Except for Mitsuru (who becomes part of a group of religious nuts who gas a bunch of innocent people - which only lets you know how bad the rest of them must be), they are totally unlikable. They are all monsters, which I think is Kirino's point. Yuriko is completely heartless. It's as if her skin shelters a completely empty psyche. She is only there for sex, and that is totally cold no matter what Brian thinks. We eventually get to read Kazue's diary, which reveals her to be a total nutjob. She continually brags about her beauty while at the same time reporting how everyone refers to her as ugly or a bag of bones. I can't really pin down what makes Sis so terrible, she just is. Maybe it's that there is nothing redeeming about her with which to contrast the evil.

The second problem that I have with Grotesque is the way it is narrated. The story was told in a string of first person narratives. We start with Sis talking to someone, representing us. There are too many instances of things like "You ask me what I thought of...?" No, actually, I didn't. Yuriko and Kazue both tell their stories in diary form. Now I'm not saying that a prostitute wouldn't keep a diary but I'm sure she wouldn't be focusing on how long someones hair was or what color shoes the john had. It was not believable. There was also a confession by Zhang who admits to killing Yuriko but not Kazue although he did "do" her on several occasions. He is as unreliable as Kazue, but where she is self deluded, I think he might be lying. There are some letters addressed to Mitsuru but I can't figure out what they may be about other than to refute some of the things that Sis and Kazue have said.I think Kirino would have been better off with an omniscient 3rd person narrator. Maybe not. That might have created even more problems. I'm a reader, after all, not a writer.

All that having been said, I can't really recommend this book to anyone unless I want them to feel as dirty as I do. But you can bet I'll read the next book Kirino puts out in the US and I suggest you all keep your eyes open for it (and go read Out!) Any writer that can get me to finish their book when I didn't like it and wasn't forced to read it, has got something special about them.