Friday, April 22, 2016

(2016 International Man Booker Prize Longlist) "Man Tiger" by Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is a novel about a grisly murder committed by a young man in rural Indonesia. The twist here, though, is that the reader already finds out who killed whom from the very first sentence. What the novel aims to tell us over the next 172 odd pages is why.

I actually ended up liking this novel a lot more than I expected to. It was a rare glimpse at rural Indonesian life, and less of a murder mystery than a look into the issues surrounding two families that led to the fatal, murderous event.

The main character (and murderer) Margio was in particular, well written, although I found all of the characters to be subtly, but well fleshed out. The narrative was interesting, sufficiently well paced and suspenseful enough to keep me engaged all the way till the very end, when the final secret surrounding the murderer's motivations was revealed.

All in all, an interesting read that I would recommend to those interested in world literature.

UP NEXT: 1) 2015 "Big Book" Prize Winner "Zuleikha Opens her Eyes" 2) Marie NDiaye's "Ladivine" 3) yet another International Booker Longlister (this one set in China) 4) the first work to be featured on mychitalka by famed Russian writer Ivan Bunin and 5) the 2015 Prix Medici winner.

(RNL List #92) "Whose Nose is Better" by Vitaliy Bianki (Russia)

Rating: 1 out of 3

Not much to say here. A very short children's story about a group of different birds, showing off their noses and trying to establish which one is better. I must say that the ending was unexpected, but not in the best of ways.

(2015 Prix Renaudot Winner) "D'apres une histoire vraie" by Delphine de Vigan

Rating: 2 out of 3

My next review is of a book that met with a lot of commercial (and critical) success last year - Delphine De Vigan's "D'apres une histoire vraie."

The book is purportedly about de Vigan (a famous writer) writing about herself fretting about what to write next, after the success of her last, deeply autobiographical book. De Vigan seems pressured by all sides to write another true life story, however, she continually returns to the question of whether it is really so important to a reader for a story to have really happened. Can a reader connect just as deeply with a story that is not true? Or perhaps, only partially true?

This is of course, the central idea behind the book. However, the narrative itself is dominated by the relationship between de Vigan and a mysterious fan, whom de Vigan chooses only to name L. The woman mysteriously meets with de Vigan and they form a sort of clandestine friendship. Though the friendship starts out harmlessly enough, L. eventually gains a frightening grip over de Vigan.

The novel eventually explores which parts of the narrative are in itself fact or fiction.

Now, I know that this novel was nominated for the Goncourt, and ultimately won the Prix Renaudot. I also admit that it was an interesting, easy read, however, for me personally, it didn't have the depth to really stand out as a prize-worthy novel. I give it a 2 out of 3 and would probably recommend it to friends, however, its not a novel that stands out for me.

(RNL List #89) "Terrible Divination" by Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is the story of a young officer in love with the wife of another man. He is desperate to have her for his own; so desperate in fact, that he accepts the assistance of a 'mysterious stranger' who almost miraculously assists him getting what he wants.

Very soon, however, the officer realizes that what one wants may never be worth the price to be paid...

In brief, the story was very interesting...until the final denouement. For the most part, the tale was suspenseful, eery, and the 'mysterious stranger' in particular was very captivatingly written. All of this having been said, the last few pages were a bit of a disappointment. Its a shame, and I do wish B-M has been able to give this fine short story a more deserving ending.

All in all, however, the story is still worthy of a solid 2/3.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

(RNL List #84) "Daylight Stars" by Olga Berggoltz (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Now to be honest, I hadn't expected to like this book as much as I did, however, I must admit that I was won over by Berggoltz's semi auto-biographical book comprised of snippets from her childhood during the Revolutionary War all the way up till Post-World War II.

The writing is very bright, hopeful and idealistic - in brief- rather characteristic of Soviet prose of the era, and in sharp contrast to the bleak, terrifying conditions that Soviet society faced at the time. Among other reminiscences, Berggoltz writes of her memories of two wars, the horrible siege of Leningrad that resulted in the deaths of innumerable soldiers and civilians, and she even makes a slight reference to her own, deeply personal personal tragedies (the loss of her husband, children and a terrible episode in the 30's during which she was arrested by the Soviet government).

Through all this, Berggoltz remains optimistic, hopeful of the future and in love with humanity. It seems a little naive now, it seems a little surreal to our jaded 21st century sensibilities, but there's something really beautiful about the Soviet spirit, and this is reflected well in Berggoltz's prose.

This is a novel that belongs to another age, and that will likely be forgotten, although it is worth a read.

NEXT UP: Yet another book on the exile of 'rich' peasants in Soviet Russia (this time, by an award-winning contemporary author), the first book to be featured on mychitalka by an Indonesian author, another short story by Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, last year's winner of the Prix Renaudot and a unique French novel by one of France's most decorated female authors.

(2016 International Booker Prize Shortlist) "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang (South Korea)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This book has become a real fan favorite amongst readers of the 2016 International Booker Prize Longlist (and perhaps for good reason) The story is an incredibly unique look at a woman who, as a result of mental illness, unexpectedly becomes a vegetarian. The renunciation of meat, however, only marks the beginning of the woman's mental decline, which is witnessed from three different perspectives; from the point of view of her incredulous and unsympathetic husband, her awe-struck brother-in-law, and her caring and sympathetic older sister.

Now I really enjoyed the first part of the novel (the part of the story told from the perspective of the vegetarian's husband.) The last two thirds of the book, though not bad persey, were nowhere near as striking. In fact, I found the last third rather disappointing, as to me, it provided too many explanations and justifications for the vegetarian's actions, taking away (in my view, unnecessarily) a lot of the mystery that made the first part of the novel so engaging. In short, I would have liked to have used a bit of my imagination to piece together what may have led to the vegetarian's decline, rather than having had it spoon-fed to me.

Nevertheless, I am certain that this novel will be one of the top contenders for the 2016 International Booker Prize.

Monday, April 11, 2016

(RNL List #90) "The Academy of Pan Kleksa" by Jan Brzechwa (Poland)

Rating: 3 out of 3

Now this is a lovely, lovely children's book by famed Polish author Jan Brzechwa. It is a charming tale of a magical academy run  by the mysterious Pan Kleksa (an eccentric little man with a penchant for freckles!). Among other oddities, the academy only accepts children whose first names start with A. The academy is also closely connected through magic passageways to all sorts of famous fairytales and as a result, the children's lives are filled with all sorts of fantastical adventures.

The real star of the novel for me was a very interesting fairytale of the author's own creation involving a king of wolves. However, I greatly enjoyed the overall uniqueness of the tale, which ended with a beautifully touching and rewarding finale that bridged our world with this fairytale world in the most satisfying manner.

I can't help but repeat, in conclusion, that is a really lovely children's book that I would highly recommend.

(I'm not sure if this book is available in English. I read it in Russian)

(2016 International Booker Prize Longlist) "Death by Water" by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is my first novel by Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe, and I must say, that its my favorite so far of the 2016 International Booker Longlisters. It is also the only book of the three I've read so far that I would consider nominating for the short list.

The book is essentially a quasi-autobiographical story of the author writing about himself writing about himself. The first part of the novel concentrates on the 70+ year author attempting to write his last, crowning work; an autobiographical account of the drowning of his Father. At the same time, the author is collaborating with a talented avant-garde theatre group who have an interest in dramatizing some of his earlier works.

The novel, as the title would suggest, focuses on all of the characters coming to terms/accepting death: for example, the author is trying to come to terms with his Father's death, as well as his own impending death and the possibly impending deaths of his wife and son. The novel also explores themes related to the death of the nation after failed historical insurrections, as well as after the dethronement of the Emperor.

There is also a parallel plot involving one of the brightest stars of the theatre troupe; a daring young woman named Unaiko who is determined to come to terms through theatre with a sort of death that she herself experienced in her youth.

The novel is slow moving, which has motivated many to abandon the novel midway through, but I ultimately found the novel rich, multilayered and very rewarding. This is clearly the novel of a very talented writer and it shows.

Smart and thought-provoking. These are two words I would use to describe this novel.

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Rating: 3 out of 3

The Michel Houellebecq readathon continues. This time, I visit one of Michel's first works; an essay on H.P. Lovecraft.

Now I must admit, I am no great Lovecraft fan, however, I love to read Houellebecq describing Lovecraft. I mean, how could you not with little gems like these interspersed throughout the novel?:

"When we love life, we don't read. We hardly go to the cinema as well, moreover." (self-translation)


"He would preserve throughout his life a typically aristocratic attitude consisting of mistrust for humanity in general, combined with extreme kindness towards individuals in particular." (self-translation)

Now this is a fine literary analysis, covering both Lovecraft's style, philosophy and life. Its well worth reading if you are a Lovecraftian, however, it is just as well worth reading if you are only interested in Houellebecq's fine writing style.

(RNL List #81) Petersburg - by Andrey Beliy

Rating: 1 out of 3

It took me months, literally months to get through this one! But I finally did it!
Now let me just say that "Petersburg" is a tremendously long, mammoth volume that you would either love to pieces (like Nabokov) or lament ever having started (like me).

It follows the lives of the wealthy Ableukhov father and son over the course of a few pivotal days in chaotic, pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. The world around this father and son pair is going topsy turvy. The old order is being threatened by daily worker's strikes, and even Ableukhov junior is taken in by the new doctrines. After meeting with failure in love, he even gets involved in a conspiracy plot to kill his Father...

The novel is an extremely wordy, intellectually top-heavy, jarringly slow moving account of the days between Ableukhov junior getting involved in the plot and its final denouement.

Now there are dozens of pages of notes appended to this novel given the multitude of references to intellectual theories, books, historical personnages, etc...

This is an intellectual's fest perhaps, but if you are just an ordinary reader looking for a story that doesn't require you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 20th century St. Petersburg intellectual trends, this is all going to be very trying.

You might also find Beliy's excessively poetic take on writing rather irritating after awhile. Say, after the 300th page when he obsessively re-describes the same thing over and over again for poetic effect, or perhaps to show us, once again, how much of a groveling fanboy he is of Nikolay Gogol.

Now I'm not saying that Beliy is not a good author. He is, and some sections of the book I really enjoyed. However, this was far too long, and ultimately trying a novel for me.

(RNL List #119) "The Escape" by Mikhail Bulgakov (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Again, I'll leave the biography of Bulgakov for next time....

The work I'm about to review is a play written by the author of "Master and Margarita" fame. Its about the retreat of White Army sympathizers out of Russia and into Crimea, Paris and other exotic locales...

The play explores the disorderliness of the sympathizers' escape from Communist Russia. It also follows the exiles in their miserable emigre lives; short of money and forced to take on degrading work such as street vending and prostitution. Finally, the play culminates with each sympathizer making the choice of whether to run back home to Russia and face the consequences of their escape or remain in hostile, far off lands abroad.

While it wasn't a terrible play, persay, I wasn't particularly touched or moved. A 1.5 rating for me.

(2016 International Booker Prize Longlist) "Mend the Living" by Maylis de Kerangal (France)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

A surfing accident gone horribly long leaves a young man clinically dead. The harvesting of his remains begins and this...this is the process that this novel endeavors to follow.

The writing style is extremely longwinded, often bombastic. A lot of readers had a problem with the writing style (particularly those who read in English, as in French it just comes off better). However, my problem with the novel was that it was simply okay. To me, the book was as entertaining as an ER sitcom on the subject could well be. However, there was no stunning originality or big ideas here. It was simply a story of parents coming to terms with the loss; and doctors working to restore life in the lives of others with the help of the man's organs...

Recommended for fans of medical drama.

(2016 International Booker Prize Shortlist) "A General Theory of Oblivion" by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)

Rating: 0.5 out of 3

Now I really wanted to like this book. Its my first by an Angolan author. It was also nominated for the International Booker Prize this year, so it must be worth reading (right?) The book also started out really promisingly; a young woman walls herself up in her apartment during the Angolan civil war.

I was hoping to read more about how her isolation would affect her and what she might have to do to survive...

However, things started to get incredibly chaotic in a 'magically-realistic' manner. The book introduced us to many new characters whose destinies hurtled towards each other throughout the novel in the most improbable ways...

Since the characters were so thinly fleshed out, and since the plot began to get a little too all-over-the-place for me, by the end of the novel, I really ceased to care about the characters, the plot, or about anything else in the book.

I didn't really get what it was all about. And to be quite honest, I didn't particularly care. Its telling that for me, the only character that I really ended up feeling for, to the end, was the monkey.

(RNL List #88) "The Red Cloak" by Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Now, I'm desperately behind on reviews, so I'll leave the biography of B-M till my review of his next work.

I briefly want to mention that this short story is a lyrical tale of love, told through the eyes of a young artistically-inclined man. He is captivated and inspired as he watches a young muslim woman lament the passing of her Christian lover.

A very short story for fans of the lyrical genre...

"The Sixth Hour" by Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Just a few words on the final volume of the trilogy I have been reading on Soviet collectivization. This was a moving finale to the chronicle of an entire village turned upside down by the political and economic upheaval of Soviet Russia.

The frightening thing about this book is that it is actually based on true life events. The book is said to have been inspired by a real-life village (which coincidentally no longer exists). In the afterword, the book reminds us all that Russia was, in fact, 90% composed of peasants. This class, due to their sheer hardiness and resourcefulness, was the backbone of serfdom, the Russian army and consequently, was the class that suffered the most to build communism.

I must emphasize (although if you have been reading the books up to this point, it will come as no surprise), that there are no happy endings in this book. Each villager met with a varied, but equally horrific fate. And perhaps that matched reality. Whoever wasn't killed off by work camps, privations and imprisonment was simply finished off by the Second World War.

And since many of the villages were wiped off the map, it is only thanks to chroniclers like Belov that the memory of these villagers remain.

"The Sixth Hour" is, in summary, a powerful and edifying book that is well worth reading, and its sad that it will likely never be translated into English. Yet another forgotten Russian classic...

"The Pursuit of Happiness" by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Review: 3 out of 3

This mini-review is of Michel Houellebecq's first compilation of poetry. Michel started out as a poet,  and as such, his poetry is a big part of his literary canon.

Now, I've never been a very big fan of poetry, but I love Michel's. This is poetry that I read and re-read; that I commit to memory...poetry that resonates in my heart.

Its also poetry for the modern person- the themes of the poetry are mainly isolation and depression. However, its interesting that a volume of poetry with such dark subject matter is entitled "The Pursuit of Happiness".

Perhaps because, suffering is the eternal precondition for happiness?

(2008 Prix Goncourt Winner) "The Patience Stone" by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

This is a wonderfully touching book that follows an Afghani woman as she cares, over the course of several weeks, for her paralyzed freedom fighter husband. The character of the woman is wonderfully fleshed out (though she is deliberately never given a name).

She is a strong woman, who has been forced (due to the patriarchical regime) under a veil of silence and submission. The fact that her husband is (at least for the moment) paralyzed, allows her to speak out for the first time and give a sort of confession of all of her innermost feelings and secrets.

This experience is liberating, but also dangerous...

The book could (and I believe should) have been made into an excellent play. (Coincidentally, it was dramatized in 2012). It was a very moving look at the world of a woman filled with humiliation, suffering and hard choices....

This is an excellent book; well deserving of the Goncourt, or really of any literary prize. 

(2014 Nobel Prize Winner) "In the Cafe of Lost Youth" by Patrick Modiano (France)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

The world became acquainted with Patrick Modiano after he won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Although I must add, that prior to this, he was rather popular in France.) I decided, in turn, to acquaint myself with this author, whom I had never read before, by picking up at random this little novel.

This book is in brief, a nostalgic look at a Paris of bygone years (prior to gentrification), where you could still find some eclectic cafes where you could spend the night in drink and conversation. Specifically, it follows the life of a beautiful young woman who, addicted to freedom, chooses to grow up on these Paris streets. Any attempt made by her (or others) to have her settle down, ends up in failure. As an example, she leaves a marriage to a perfectly nice and decent fellow, only to run off again into her free, bohemian lifestyle.

Now, this novel to me was okay. It had a really nostalgic ring to it, and I'm sure that you would particularly appreciate it if you were actually from Paris and could visualize the neighborhoods Modiano was writing about. You might also appreciate the novel if you could muster up any sympathy at all for the female protagonist, whom I thought, to be quite frank, was completely egotistical and undeserving of any regard or sympathy.

I wouldn't say its an unpleasant novel to read, but a rather forgettable one.

(2016 International Dublin Literary Award Longlist) "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage" by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

Review: 1.5 out of 3

I read this book several weeks ago but was rather uninspired to post my review. I suppose that anyone who at least marginally follows contemporary literature is acquainted with the name Haruki Murakami. He's Japan's most famous literary export and is raved over, simply raved over by readers the world over.

As such, I was naturally quite excited to read one of his books.

Now I must say, the synopsis was so promising... a young man, whom all of a sudden, with no explanation, is told by his best friends that they no longer want to be best friends with him. This news, of course, traumatizes him and, just as he is embarking on a new long-term relationship, he realizes that in order to move forward, he has to piece together his past.

Now, as I was reading through the novel, there were many interesting pieces that seemed to promise some sort of exciting future denouement. For example, that mysterious jazz pianist in the hot springs, carrying around a mysterious bag; the mysterious university student that the main character would go swimming with; that mysterious young woman from the main character's... etc. etc.

Basically, I was waiting for Murakami to connect all of these 'mysterious' pieces together into an awesome finale. However, I was really just left holding the bag. Now, perhaps I missed some extremely subtle thread that connected everything together, but - all things said and done - its only been a few weeks since I finished the book, and I've already forgotten the ending. That's how little of an impression the ending, and this book by extension, made on me.