Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Welcome to All Book Blog Hoppers July 29 to August 1

Welcome to The Reading Life

I have been an on and off participant in The Book Blogger Hop hosted by Jennifer of Crazy for books for a long time.   I have found it to be a great place to discover new to me blogs and meet some great book bloggers.    

My blog and my reading focuses on an ever evolving collections of reads but for now I am very into South Asian Short Stories, Japanese fiction, classics, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf.   I also read a wide variety of short stories and review an occasional carefully selected new work.

My blog is the home of Irish Short Story Week centered around St Patrick's Day.   I am open to book blog events.   In August I will be the joint host on August 17 of Indonesian Short Story Day and on August 31, Malaysian Short Story Day.   These events will be hosted by bloggers with a special knowledge of the culture of these two countries.

Every week Jennifer poses an interesting question for us-this week she asks us to name a book we have recently acquired and cannot wait to read-my answer is Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I will follow back all who follow me-just leave a comment letting me know you are now a follower

Mel u

Indonesian Short Story Week-Year Two-A Post by the Co-Host Novroz

Last August in observation of Indonesian Independence Day I devoted time to reading and posting on Indonesian Short Stories.  I am very happy to say that the event will be repeated this year starting August 1 to culminate on August 17.  This was an entirely new reading area to me and I greatly enjoyed it.   Most of the stories were by women focusing on their family lives.     I am pleased to say that a year latter I still get daily hits on these posts.    This year I am very glad  that Novroz from Jakarta will be co-hosting the event in what I hope will be an annual tradition for  many years.    She has a deep knowledge of Indonesian culture and is herself a short story writer.   The post below is from her blog.    There are a lot of great reading ideas for participants in her posts (with links).     To join in just read and post on one story and leave a comment here or on  Polychrome Interest .     As a side benefit, this may allow you to network with other book bloggers and readers in South and South East Asia.     Please consider joining in (lots of links below so you can read online for free)-don't be shy and say "well I cannot join in as I know nothing about Indonesian Literature."

There will be summery posts at the end of the week highlighting all the posts and the blogs of participants.

I will be doing a post soon about online reading resources for Asian Short Stories which will give you additional resources and will also support Malaysian Short Story Week starting August 26-more on that event soon.    (All the rest of the content of this post is by Novroz.)

Wonderful Guest Post 
Novroz  On Our Joint Event

As I have already mentioned before in my It’s Monday postMel U of The Reading Life and I are planning to host a special event in August. August is a special month for Indonesia, the month where we gained our freedom from colonialism. Indonesian Independence Day takes place every August 17.
Last year, Knowing about Indonesian Independence day, Mel U did something related to reading as his way to honor my country’s Independence DayHe read several short stories written by Indonesian authors. I was touched by what he had done because he isn’t Indonesian and yet he did something to honor the most historical day in Indonesia. Mel U lives in Philippine, one of Indonesia neighbors.
Early this month, he asked me whether I want to do another short story read event this coming August… I didn’t take part in the event last year because of the schedule I had back then. This year, I decided to co-host this event together with Mel.
I know that not many people ever read stories from Indonesia, I think this is a good opportunity to let people know about Indonesian Literature. So…If you are interested, come and join the ride :)
I have done some searching through internet to help you choose some short stories you can read. Here they are
  • Nerd in Writing is a blog that specialized in writing short stories (and movie related posts). Wulan, a young friend of mine who used to be my student, has a dream to be a professional writer. She showed her talent in writing stories with unpredictable ending in her blog. Although the stories do not have Indonesian atmosphere, but she is after all an Indonesian. Go and have a look. My favorite, so far, is What Bridget Did
  • GestapuI found this collection of short stories in pdf file. The link is here.
Gestapu will be my first book for this event. It intrigues me because it is based on one of the most tragic incidents in my country, The Abortive Communist Coup of 30th September 1965. We, Indonesian called that incident as G30S-PKI.
  • Darkening Sky by Kipandjikusmin. I found the pdf file of this controversial story in this site.
The controversy over this short story is obviously not a simple issue as it involves not only religious matters but also variables found in the society. Basically, the Moslems’ strongly negative reaction to the story is based on their belief that the personification of God is a violation of Islam. Kipandjikusmin was considered to have done even more harm by writing in a style referred to assembarangan, that is, a style in which an author presents serious matters in a casual and careless manner.
As a Muslim, I am curious on how bad this book is. Is it really insulting my religion or not.
Once you have finished reading any short stories by Indonesian writers, please kindly share what you think about the story either in the comment form or in your blog (leave the link in the comment form or pingback this post).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster (1927, 156 pages)

My Passage from  Neophyte to Acolyte

Aspects of the Novel was born as a series of lectures  E. M. (Morgan) Forster gave at Cambridge in 1927.    I have recently read and posted on his Where Angels Fear to Tread and Passage to India.   I am nearly done with Howards End.    I love these books and will read all of his novels soon, I hope.   I am also reading E. F. Furbank's masterful biography of Forster (1879 to 1970-UK).   I was moved to learn that Forster was at the funeral of Katherine Mansfield in Paris and was a good friend of Elizabeth Bowen, two central Reading Life authors.   

Aspects of the Novel is not a "heavy" or an academic book at all.   It is not a work of  deep scholarship with a lot of axes to grind or theories to prove.   It is a friendly, very interesting work by an author that loved the reading life, had the leisure to read a great deal, and produced at least two masterworks of the novel.    It really feels to me just like what it in fact was when it originated:   a friendly lecture at a social event by a man who loved novels to an audience that really wanted to hear what he was saying.   Forster was so secure in his knowledge and with his audience that he felt no need to be trendy or even especially original.   He does try hard to be interesting and tell the truth.     The lectures have a relaxed feel to them that I enjoyed and it seems that Forster enjoyed writing them.   At times Forster was talking about works I have not heard of but that it a great thing, for me at least.    

One of the things people will want to know is simply what novels does Forster endorse.    His choices are very interesting but not at all shocking.    He says several times the greatest novel ever is War and Peace for its creation of the world in a book.        Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is mentioned as the deepest exploration of the soul. (I wondered if Bunny Garnett was in the audience.)     He loves Cranford  by Elizabeth Gaskell.    Among his greats are Proust, Henry James,  Dickens and Jane Austin and Lawrence Sterne.     He has sections on story lines, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy and pattern in the novel.   He talks a good bit about the work of George Meridith, Walter Scott and Samuel Butler (three authors I have not read yet).    He says Moby Dick is one of the greatest of all novels, in a time before it was fashionable.   You will walk away with a bigger TBR list for sure!   I am really looking forward to rereading Tristram Shandy after reading Forster's brilliant remarks on it.   I know I have to read something by Walter Scott soon.

Using Bleak House by Dickens as his example, Forster says in a novel an author can sometimes let his audience relax by being clear and simple and at other times he can strain the intellect to the maximum by using different narrative methods and points of view as he proceeds.

This work is in the public domain so you can find a source to download it if you like.

I do not know if it would still be widely  read if it was not written by Forster.  

I very much enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it.    It is not, as I said, an academic work.   Forster does not try to prove that what he says is right with a 1000 foot notes.   You are assumed to be very well read and a lover of the novel.      I think my enjoyment of these lectures was also increased by what I have learned about the atmosphere of Cambridge in the 1920 that allowed me to somehow insert myself in the audience.

Please share your experiences with Forster with us and help out Forster neophytes such as myself.

Mel u

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The In-Between-Woman" by Rabindranath Tagore রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর

"The In-Between-Woman"  by Rabindranath Tagore (1923, 6 pages)

Marriage as Child Raising?
रबिन्द्रनाथ ठाकुर

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941-India) was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1911).    Gandhi came to him for moral advise, Einstein was intrigued by his metaphysics and W. B. Yeats was amazed by his sheer depth.   He reshaped the Bengali language.    I am so glad that a few months ago by sheer luck I read one of his short stories, of which I am pleased to say there are many.    I see him as a great world wide cultural treasure and a source of  real wisdom.   

A number of Tagore's short stories deal directly with the lives of South Asian women, often with those from the poorer segments of society.    He writes with complete empathy and realism without a hint of condescension.   Before I post on the story I just want to bring up one question.

There is something that is must bother a lot of people as they read for the first time South Asian short stories about marriage.  The women in the stories are from eight to twelve when they marry, often as second or more wives to a man much older than they are.    Custom seems to dictate that the marriages  are not be consummated until the girl had her first period.     This is not treated as an evil thing but as just normal.   Do we adopt an attitude of ethical relativism and say well it was OK in their culture or do we reject it as intrinsically repugnant?     I think this is one of the questions brought up in "The In-Between Woman".    We also have to think how does a woman who was married at 12 feel at age 32 when she is asked to help in the raising of a 12 year old junior wife.

The wife in this story was married at 8, she is 35 now and had never had a child.   She loves her husband very much but she knows he wants a child.   She tells him it is time for him to find a second wife.    He loves her also and at first he is very against the idea.    In time, knowing he is really expected by all to produce an heir he agrees to take another wife.    In a very moving and sad moment he tells his wife he does not have time with his work to "raise" a new wife from childhood to an adult.   He tells the wife she must do it and she agrees out of love for her husband.

"One day, he introduced the subject himself and said, “If I marry a girl child at my age, I won’t be able to bring her up.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Harasundari replied. “The responsibility of raising her properly rests with me.” As she announced this, the outline of a young, gentle, bashful, newly wedded bride, lately separated from her mother’s bosom, formed in the mind of this childless woman and her heart melted"
  In time she begins to feel love for the new wife, who is really a  child.   When the child bride displaces her in the husbands bed she feels a profound sadness but she accepts it.  We sense the child bride knows she has more sexual power over the husband than the older wife.    In time the new wife develops into the most horrible of spoiled brats.   Tagore makes us feel how the man and older wife feel.   I will say it feels terrible for the wife and really not much better for the man.    I will leave the rest of this story untold.   It is perfectly done and plotted I think anyone who reads it will be moved and made to think.   It would probably make a good class room story as it should generate a lot of discussion.

You can read it on line HERE.   It is newly translated (2011) by Nivedita Sen

I will be reading and posting on Tagore on a regular basis.  

Let us know of your experience with Tagore

Mel u

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster

"The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster (1909,  12 pages)

"There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world."

E. M. Forster on The Reading Life

I think the more your life has been taken over by the Internet the more you will be amazed by E. M. Forster's 1909 look into the future displayed in his marvelous short story "The Machine Stops".    

Where Angels Fear to Tread and Passage to India have completely convinced me of the literary genius of E.  M. Forster, just as they have 1000s and 1000s of others.    I am currently reading his Howards End and am awestruck by it also.   Not just for the quality of the prose and the profound characterizations but also for the many brilliant authorial asides.   Forster is as wise as they come!   

In addition to six novels, Forster wrote some travel books and essays and a number of short stories.    I think all of his work is now in the public domain with the exception of a novel, Maurice intentionally not published until after his death,    For sure I will soon read all of his novels (maybe having to wait on Maurice for practical reasons) and I want to read some of his short stories.   A number of articles on Forster I read said his most memorable short story was "The Machine Stops".   

As the story opens we are in the living quarters of a middle aged woman.   She communicates with the world through "The Machine".    She speaks to people around the world through it, all of her knowledge comes through it, she does not see something as valid unless the machine contains it.  Hum, starting to sound strangely familiar.   

The atmosphere of the Earth is toxic.   There have been it seems terrible wars or ecological disasters so everyone lives underground.    You can go on a tourist type trip to the surface if you like but why bother.    The Machine (no one fully understands how it works or can visualize a time before The Machine Existed) somehow produces food and oxygen etc.   People spent their time on self improvement activities and a lot of time is devoted to lectures.

In one very funny swipe at academic historians, during a lecture on the French Revolution the speaker boasts that he will not tell us what actually happened (that would be ever so degrading!) but what Professor Smith said about Professor Jones's remark on Dr. Quong's account of the Mongolian commentaries on the work of Carlyle and so on to the tenth degree.

One day the central female character gets a message that her son, who lives on the other side of the world wants to see her in person.   This will call for her to take an airship.   There used to be a vast fleet of them linking the cities of the world up but  no one really travels anymore.  

Her son tells her that he has seen signs that the machine is breaking down.    To even mention this can lead to one being made "homeless", sent to live on the surface of the  earth. 

I do not want to tell more of the plot of this story.   I think a lot of readers will be shocked by this vision of the future from 1909.    I really liked this story and hope at least fellow Forster lovers will  read it.

You can read "The Machine Stops" HERE  

Please share your experience with Forster with us.

Mel u

Mel u

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Foe by J. M. Coetzee

Foe by J. M. Coetzee (1968, 160 pages)

A Post Colonial Retelling of
Robinson Crusoe

Not long ago a very kind reader of my blog in New Delhi sent me two books by J. M. Coetzee,  Foe and The Master of St Petersburg.    Coetzee (1940-from South Africa but now living in and a citizen of Australia) is a much awarded author.   He has won the Booker Prize twice as well as  the Nobel Prize in 2003.  (You can read about him here)

I decided to first read Foe as it seemed to deal with the sort of colonial matters I have been pondering of  late, it was a sort of retelling of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) from the point of view of a woman castaway and, I freely admit,  it was the shortest of the two works!    

The narrative method of Foe takes a little while to become clear.   I think those who have read at least Robinson Crusoe and maybe Moll Flanders (to get some insight into how Defoe saw women and how he develops his stories) will get more from this book than those who have not.  

The story here adds in a female castaway,Susan Barton, as the lead figure.   She was abandoned on the same island Crusoe was when there was a  mutiny aboard a ship she was sailing on.   It seems she was the companion, of sorts, of the captain and the crew turned against her also.    On the island we hear of her first meeting with Crusoe.    He is wild and savage in his appearance.   He has several different accounts to offer of his past and how he wound up on the island.    We also meet his slave Friday who apparently has had his tongue cut out.   This becomes sort of a symbol for the attempt by slavers to silence the enslaved.    It is  a representation of colonizing powers  and their impact on the people they conquered and ruled.   The missing tongue and the forced silence of Friday is a dominant theme of Foe.

Susan telling her story to Mr. Foe, a well known author who has "ghost written" lots of stories of adventurers, rogues, and castaways but he thinks Susan's story might have selling power as she is a female castaway and she is an independent woman who has used her sexuality to survive when she needed to.   The book should also be seen as commentary on women in the 18th century and beyond in that if a woman has no man in her life, no family fortune and is not a slave or servant than there is only one other thing she can be in the minds of most people in that world.

Susan also tells of her attempts to find her lost daughter who rumor has it is in Bahia, Brazil.    The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the descriptions of Bahia in the 18th century.    Bahia in Brazilian culture today represents the African roots of Brazilian culture.   There is a lot of meaning packed in the use of Bahia in the novel which may depend in part on knowing that the Bahia region of Brazil (Salvador is the big city) was the intake point for African slaves (over 1/3 of slaves were sent to Brazil) most of whom ended up working in sugar plantations throughout the country. It is also considered in popular culture to be the home of the sexually most free women.   This in part is also a product of the culture of slavery in that an independent woman in Salvador was at the time assumed to have once been a concubine of a white master who freed her.    She can no longer be considered a "respectable woman" so she is quite free with herself.   (I have been to Brazil numerous times and have made some study of its history and culture.)

There is a lot of colonial "stuff"  in Foe.   It is also is about the nature of narratives, I think this is called "Metafiction".   It is about the lives of "manless" women.   One very interesting thing in Foe was the way Crusoe had built over 15 years a series of terraces (like the  rice terraces in the north of the Philippines or Java) that he cannot use himself but he is building for future residents of the island.    It seems nearly a senseless activity.

Foe is a very well written book.    I think some will find the book a bit "heavy handed" in its symbolism as if we are being beaten over the head with it at times.

Foe is not considered a top work by the author by any of the many reviewers on

I am glad I read this book.    It has some interesting symbolism.    It is an important work, I think, in post colonial fiction.  

To others, I would say I would rate this book as one to read if you can borrow it or get it for free and you are interested in the subject matter.   Also, and I think this is a sound motive, a lot of people are just curious to read something by a Nobel Prize winning novelist.  

I will read  his The Master of St Petersburg (set in St Petersburg Russia and centered on Dostoevsky) probably latter this year.

What is your experience with Coetzee?

Mel u

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924,  368 pages)

A Magnificent Novel

"Fear is everywhere; the British Raj rests on it"

Where Angels Fear to Trade was my first E. M. Forster (1879 to 1970-UK) novel.   It is a wonderful read, funny, great conversations, good satire of the English upper class and brings its characters totally to life.    I liked it a lot and knew I wanted to read his other five novels.    It is a very good totally worth reading novel.    But for me it pales badly in comparison to A Passage to India which simply stunned me by its sheer brilliance, depth of wisdom, and the beauty of the writing.

Forster lived in India for a few years, working as personal secretary for a maharajah.  (He wrote a non-fiction account of this experience, The Hill of Devi,  which is on my TBR list now.)    The time spent there clearly made a deep impression  on Forster.

Before I read A Passage to India I had seen the movie based on it a couple of times on TV.   I was thus familiar with, as I think most readers will be,  the basic plot of the novel before reading it.   This did take a little from the suspense of the big trial scene in the novel but maybe that was good as it allowed me to focus on the wonderful prose and the thoughts behind them.

I won't relay any of the plot as I think most will have at least seen the movie.

Even though Forster's  (I keep wanting to spell his name wrong!)  life was as British Raj as it could be (Maharajahs were puppet rulers for the British and their British appointed advisers were often the real rulers) A Passage to India is one of the greatest novels about the colonial experience, seen from all sides.   There are many sides to be seen from in British India.   There are no simple "bad guys"-no colonial monsters with a whip (but we know they are there),  no good "natives" or "bad ones".
(Side note, yesterday I saw the old Errol Flynn movie, The Charge of the Light Brigade-might be an exciting movie with good dialogue but it is totally colonial in its attitudes toward India with good Indians helping the British and sinister Guru like figures opposing them and I thought how simple - in the bad sense-the thinking behind this movie was.)

One of the lines in the novel that really struck me was when one of the central Indian characters told him British friend Mr Fielding that the Indians supported the English in the last great war but in the next one they will use it to obtain their Independence.   Kind of a chilling line form 1924, for me at least.

There a lot in this novel on the history of Indian and its religious faith.   The sections on the caves is justifiably considered one of the great  passages in 20th century literature.  

A Passage to India is one of the books in Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan so it was a "check off" for me. Fadiman says perhaps Howard's End is Forster's best novel so I think that will be the next of his works I will read. Some may think the "thoughts" behind A Passage to India might at times get in the way of the narrative structure or just find it a "bit heavy" with religious theorizing and other may see it as anti-British (it is kind of hard to be proud of the British Raj!).

I just amazed by this novel. I think it should be your first Forster that way if you never get around to his other works you have at least read it!

Please share your experience with Forster with us.

Mel u

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Oscar Wilde Two Comedies and Some Maxims

The Importance of Being Earnest  1895
Lady Windemere's Fan 1892
"A Few Maxims" 1894

Two Comedies by Oscar Wilde

"Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty

I read the comedies of Oscar Wilde (1854 to 1900-Ireland) and Portrait of Dorian Gray a long time ago.   I remember thinking how marvelous it would be if people actually spoke in the wonderful way Wilde made them.   Maybe I would not have that as my first reaction now but I think it is the common one when one first reads Wilde at a young age.   

I was moved to reread him (both plays can be found on by my rereading of Susan Sontag's 1965 essay "Notes on Camp" which I read in conjunction with my first reading of Ubo Roi by Alfred Jarry.    Sontag dedicated her notes to Oscar Wilde and quotes him several times.   (I think some of the literary judgments of Sontag are not correct but I think her discussion of differing literary sensibilities is very interesting.    She credits Wilde with helping to popularize  Camp but she does not say Wilde should be seen as a pure Camp figure.     I use the expression "Camp" not as meaning "so bad it is good" but in the terms set out by Sontag.)

When The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windemere's Fan were first produced the plot lines seemed scandalous to many.   The Importance of Being Earnest centers on a man with a double life.   In the country he is serious John for the  but in the city he becomes Ernest a devilish man about town.    When his double life is found out by his friend Algernon he in turn confesses he also has an other identity. A tale of martial deception and romantic duplicity ensues.    The real point of this play is in some of the things said in the conversations in the play.   Oscar loved to outrage!

Lady Windemere's Fan is more directly about infidelity and deception within the late Victorian marriage.    It is still read and preformed for the wonderful dialogue.   

The plot lines of Wilde's plays probably no longer have the ability to shock audiences.  (We hear much worse stuff about people in high places on the news all the time.)    I think his dialogue will still delight a lot of readers and theater goers.   

"A Few Maxims" seems a bit forced at times.   Wilde is trying a bit hard to inflame his readers but they are still very much worth reading.

"In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public.  Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.

Most women are so artificial that they have no sense of Art.  Most men are so natural that they have no sense of Beauty.

What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art.  It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.

Those whom the gods love grow young".

Wilde wrote two more comedies.   I hope to read them soon.  

To Wilde neophytes, first by far read The Portrait of Dorian Gray, then some of his short stories and fairy tales and then The Importance of Being Earnest".

Mel u

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Welcome to All Literary Book Blog Hoppers

Is Literature Therapeutic?

I like The Literary Book Blog Hop a lot.    Only a small percent of book bloggers post on classics or literature from outside the popular main stream.   The Literary Book Blog Hop helps us find each other.

Every week the blog hosts propose an interesting question for us-here is this week's question:

Discuss Bibliotherapy. Do you believe literature can be a viable form of therapy? Is literary writing more or less therapeutic than pop lit or nonfiction? 

My answer is well yes for us it may be.   If this question slightly altered were posed on a hop for skate boarders they would say skate boarding is their therapy, the same for flower growers, lovers of French food and so on.   One of the best forms of therapy is doing something you love that has nothing to do with what ever is troubling you.   Sometimes if I feel a bit sad I just like to 
sit with my cats.    

But in defense of literature, the best way to escape from a mental trap or fantasy that has gotten a hold of us is through an attachment to something outside of us.   It seems more likely that great literature can do that than pop fiction.   In order for this to work for us I think we have to prepare ourselves for times of troubles by stocking our minds with the best there is in our culture.   Read and understand enough great literature and maybe you will not need therapy.   Just a thought.

I will follow back all who follow me and return all comments-

Mel u

Welcome to the Book Blogger Hop-July 22 to July 25

Welcome to The Reading Life

I have been an on and off participant in The Book Blogger Hop hosted by Jennifer of Crazy for books for a long time.   I have found it to be a great place to discover new to me blogs and meet some great book bloggers.    

My blog and my reading focuses on an ever evolving collections of reads but for now I am very into South Asian Short Stories, Japanese fiction, classics, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf.   I also read a wide variety of short stories and review an occasional carefully selected new work.

My blog is the home of Irish Short Story Week centered around St Patrick's Day.   I am open to book blog events.   In August I will be the joint host on August 17 of Indonesian Short Story Day and on August 31, Malaysian Short Story Day.   These events will be hosted by bloggers with a special knowledge of the culture of these two countries.

Every week Jennifer poses an interesting question for us-this week she asks us if there is a literary genre that we wish we were into but just cannot seem to find a way to read-my answer is just No there is not.

I will follow back all who follow me-just leave a comment letting me know you are now a follower


Friday, July 22, 2011

Ark Sukura by Kobo Abe 安部 公房

Ark Sukura by Kobo Abe (1984, translated by Juliet Carpenter)

As Strange a Book as I have Read in a Long Time

Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 to 1993-Japan) is one of the "Big" books of the post war Japanese novel.    It is on almost all lists of the ten most important Japanese novels (for sure it is on mine)  of all times.    (There is some background information on Abe in my prior post on him.  He has a medical degree but never practiced.)     I really enjoyed reading it but there are those who were turned off by its reduction of humans to the conditions of insects (and Kobe Abe has a "thing" for insects)  and found it to bleak for their liking.   Forgetting these issues,  Woman in the Dunes  is must read for anyone who wishes to seriously read in the Japanese novel.   It is taught in universities around the world as an example of the Existential novel in the tradition of Albert Camus.   Kenzaburo Oe said Abe should have been given the Nobel prize instead of him.

Ark Sukura (I have also seen it called The Ark Sukura) is about Mole, 250 or so pounds,  about five foot six and near blind in the sunlight from living underground.    Mole is a nick name he took for himself as he lives in an abandoned underground warehouse where he is building a concrete ark for a coming apocalyptic flood or/and for a shelter in case of a nuclear explosion in Tokyo (something feared as a  real possibility from terrorists organizations).   Mole has a number of tickets he plans to give to potential crew members for his ark who he sees as  the re-builders of the human race.    He lives underground but once and a while he goes to the surface to look in the malls  and the markets for candidates worthy to be on his ark.

As the story opens Mole is at a street market of some sort.    He spots someone selling insects.      He wants to buy one as soon as he sees a man with an attractive woman go crazy with joy when they buy one.    The insect (something Abe made up) is kind of a metaphor for Mole's view of  the state of his own life and maybe Abe's darker side's view of humanity.   The insect eats exclusively its own waste products.   (Think of the Japanese horror movies about monsters born in garbage dumps).   Mole eventually figures out that the couple are shills working with the vendor.  

After a confrontation, Mole invites the shill and the woman to join his crew (which so far is just them) underground to work on his ark/bomb shelter.   The woman is treated in a very objectified way.   Mole spends a lot of time looking at her body parts.  (One has to assume there has never been a Mrs Mole!)    All sorts of bizarre (and funny if you are a bit warped!) things happen.     Mole gets stuck in a giant toilet which is designed to be used should the ark ever go to sea.    (This is not a book for those squeamish about reading about human waste.)   Mole is looking for about 300 people to join his crew.   He has totally thought through this project.   I was fascinated to learn about some of the details of the ark.

There is just so much in this book.   Some readers will say it shows the influence of French Absurdist theater on Japanese literature (after reading Ubo Roi by Alfred Jarry I see this as very pervasive) of Becket with his characters out of the wastes of the world, and Camus.   I think it also has to be seen in part as an "anti Yokio Mishima work" with Mole as a farcical version of his heroes trying to reclaim days of glory.

A very important theme in much post WWII Japanese literature concerns finding a way to live an authentic valuable life in a world in which all of the values you were taught to believe in have been exposed as hollow lies.

Mel u

Lake by Banana Yoshimoto よしもと ばなな Win A Copy

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (2005, 188 pages, trans. by Michael Emmerich, 2011)

My New Favorite Banana Yoshimoto Novel
よしもと ばなな

The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project

Most everyone says Kitchen is their  favorite Banana Yoshimoto (1964, Japan) novel.   Kitchen, her first novel, sold millions of copies and propelled her to super star status.   I like Kitchen a lot but my favorite of her work has always been the wonderful Goodbye Tsugumi.   I totally loved the last twenty pages of Goodbye Tsugumi and I wished it could have been 1000 pages longer!.   I hate to admit this somehow, but I think The Lake might now be my favorite Yoshimoto read (out of six so far.)    The deep gentle wisdom of Yoshimoto is wonderfully wrought for us in The Lake.

The central character in The Lake, as is very normal for Yoshimoto, is a young woman struggling with her feelings about the death of someone very close to her.   A typical Yoshimoto persona is caught between the world of adulthood and the freedom from responsibility many have in their late teenage years.

Chihiro recently lost her mother, who owned a bar for men which featured table dances and such by partially clothed women.   Chihiro spent a lot of time in the bar growing up.    She never participated in any of the things that went on in the corners  of the bar but she knew about them.  We sense Chihiro feels a little ashamed of her mother's past.    Her parents separated years ago and she has an uneven relationship with her father.   Chihiro by profession is a mural painter.   She is pretty successful and has commissions all over Japan.   Yoshimoto does a wonderful job in letting us see how Chihiro deals with the feelings her mother's death creates for her.

Chihiro meets and develops a relationship with a young man,  Nakajima.    Chihiro senses a deep sadness kept hidden by him.    The longer she knows him the more she becomes obsessed with trying to understand what could  have caused this sadness.  I for sure was taken up in this central mystery of  The Lake and I very much wanted to understand it.

The mystery unravels beautifully when the couple visit two of Nakajima's old friends who live a very simple isolated life in a cabin by a lake.   This section of the novel is just perfectly told.    The atmosphere is deeply spiritual.

I do not want to tell more of the plot of this novel.   The pace is fast and there is always something happening to keep us totally interested in the action.   The characters are  made to come to life for us in a subtle highly intelligent fashion.

I totally endorse  The Lake to all readers of my blog.   It is not hard to follow at all.   It would make a good first Japanese novel or a good 100th one.  

I was provide a free copy of this book by the publisher for which I am very grateful.  They also have provided me a copy of The Lake to give to one of my readers.   If you are interested please complete this form by July 26.

Mel u