The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

This novel about the last game of a dying Go master was a gift to me by friends. They knew of my longstanding interest in Go and gave me this novel for my birthday. I’ve previously read a couple of Yasunari Kawabata’s short stories in anthologies but I’ve always felt his writing to be at least one shade more oblique than is comfortable. This book, which is apparently more straightforward than a lot of his other novels, is quite difficult to parse as an emotional work. But I still end up contemplating its themes, turning them over in my head as one’s fingers would fiddle a Go stone.

Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go is an example of the shishosetsu, a novel form that hinges upon the fictionalization of real events as experienced by the author. In this particular novel, the author is the newspaper correspondent covering the retirement game of the highly influential Go master Honinbo Shusai and the innovative younger player Otake (a thinly veiled fictionalization of eventual Go legend Minoru Kitani). Kawabata uses the actual game record in his storytelling, a recreation of which you can access here. Continue reading

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I like to think I’ve outgrown my youthful overreliance in wild hyperbole and dismissal of other people’s opinions when it comes to books and life in general. However, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte elicits such a knee-jerk revulsion from me that I fear I can never be generous or objective in my estimation of it. This despite the fact that several readers I know whose tastes have often aligned with mine thinks highly of this novel. I simply can’t move forward in a conversation about this novel without the other person agreeing to the premise that Edward Rochester is objectively The Worst.

Written in 1847, Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman that traces the life of the eponymous Jane as she builds her own self-identity despite her often dire circumstances. Orphaned early with no memories of her parents, she is forced to live with callous relations before being shipped off to a rigid boarding school where she experiences injustice and loss. As an adult with no inheritance or relations to support her, she takes on the job of a governess at a gloomy manor called Thornfield, where her life becomes enmeshed in the tempestuous affairs of its owner Edward Rochester. This relationship has become so totemic in literature that it’s the template of an entire literary tradition. The novel is told solely through Jane’s point of view, an unfiltered transcript of her thoughts and feelings as she struggles to actualize who she is and reconcile her passions with her own sense of morality. Continue reading

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

(This review spoils a significant subplot in the story, so proceed with caution.)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a beautiful title in search of a novel. Peter Cameron uses it as the jumping off point to tell the coming of age of an eighteen-year old named James Sveck.

The first few pages quickly illustrate James’s contrary and cynical nature, as well as his increasing alienation from his family and his privileged upbringing. He has acted out enough to warrant compulsory meetings with a psychiatrist, whom he stonewalls at every opportunity. He spends the last of his summer vacation before college working part-time at his mom’s art gallery. Slated to go to Brown University, he instead looks obsessively at real estate in the Midwest and plots his escape, all the while disdaining everybody in New York City, except for his grandmother and one of his mother’s employees.

I have a very contentious relationship with stories about the children of privileged New York families acting like utter snots. I like them in their trashiest incarnations, as illustrated by the distressing number of aggregate hours I’ve spent watching Gossip Girl. I know more gossipy information about Anderson Cooper (who is not a snot) and his Vanderbilt relatives (who were) than is frankly healthy. On a less morally dubious note, I also love Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Despite all that, however, I have found that the novels I’ve read so far that feature sophisticated yet brittle families leave me cold. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Nanny Diaries. I don’t find the muted oppressiveness compelling, and neither do I muster much sympathy for the often unlikeable audience surrogate railing against the machine. I like drama that surround fictional royalty with much stricter sense of decorum and repression, but I don’t know, it just doesn’t tickle me in this particular setting. Continue reading

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and… that’s about it.

It’s also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it’s appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)

The premise of Patrick deWitt’s Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback. Continue reading

House of Leaves #4 – “Its roots must hold the sky.”

(I’m writing more than a month after I’ve finished reading the book, a month after having an illuminating face-to-face discussion with my reading buddies Monique and Angus. Does that mean I’ve fully processed it and teased out its true meaning? Hell no.)

This is the kind of book that challenges you to love it. And by that I don’t simply refer to the ornery nature of its text. House of Leaves throws so many negative things your way that makes you want to qualify how much you like it–not only the brash postmodernist posturing, but also its violence, its claustrophobic dive into several unquiet minds. But it also works doubly hard to win you back over to its side, reaching for honest sentiment and often enough grasping it.

Continue reading

House of Leaves Readalong: First Post and Masterlist

I’m going to spend most of July doing a read along of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves with the fine folks at The Filipino Group on Goodreads. I’ve also lined up quite a few frothy books to act as a palate cleanser because I know from personal experience that this book can mess you up.

My first attempt at read HoL was in 2009, right after a family-related crisis and other stress-inducing events. The claustrophobic nature of the book really threw me in a loop, something that I didn’t quite expect because while I have been creeped out by books and stories before (I’m looking at you, Stephen King and Edogawa Rampo), it always involved some sort of catharsis. Danielewski’s written nightmares stay with you and fester.

And yet, abandoned books have the capacity to litter the corners of my brain. I approach it with a mixture of trepidation and fatalism. At least now I know what I’m in for. I expect to go through a million cozy mysteries to balance out my mental health, though.

In an attempt to be more organized, I’ll be using this post to collect the off-the-cuff updates I’ll be doing. I’ve also armed myself with a pack of colored paper for obsessive note-taking. Here’s to finally conquering this Mount Doom of a novel.

Readalong Posts

#1 – Inside the Place on Ash Tree Lane

#2 – The Labyrinth

#3 – Love Creates Horror

#4 – “Its roots must hold the sky.”

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expecting a hybrid of introspective contemporary women’s fiction and mundane surrealism, a mixture of Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, Melissa Banks’ A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and (yes) Haruki Murakami’s fiction.

Ultimately, the novel aimed to do a bit of those things but fails at all of them simultaneously. The book stumbles at its attempt to dish out pieces of faux-philosophical faux-wisdom, while the romance-inflected “modern girl’s quest for self-actualization” angle starts at vaguely interesting and careens towards stultifying. Continue reading