The Diving Pool, Yoko Ogawa
I’ve read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa which was a rich journey of the imagination, impossible to put down like sifting through leaves. These three novellas are equally well written, but for a reader who likes a little more sadness than I do. I love her writing, but these novellas kept twisting the knife. They’re disturbing and yet elegant. Reading them here in the Irish rain was like entering a thicket of darkness.
The Bridegroom Was a Dog, by Yoko Tawada and The Emissary
The Bridegroom is a tiny book, much funnier and stranger. A teacher in love with a gay man, martial arts, a child who needs a parent, a strangely run school, Tawada flips the reader from strange to stranger. A fantastic read.
The Emissary is a highly unusual novel, winner of the National Book Award, a dystopian novel about Japan after a nuclear disaster, when children do not grow up healthy but have to be taken care of in nurseries and eventually end up in wheelchairs. Usually dystopian novels have a brittle darkness about them, but as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, this one is quite cheery as if, who needed Japan in the first place? The whole place is soon to be gone, the whole culture disappearing and there’s just a buzz of excitement and a thrill of joy while it all goes down the collective drain. It’s like watching an orange get juiced. It’s sort of wonderful even though the orange is soon gone. I loved the book.
Terrific Mother, Lorrie Moore
We bought this short story in Dublin. It’s one of her famous stories about a woman who accidentally killed a baby, gets married and then goes off to a famous artist colony with her new husband to recover and gets massages from a strange woman. It’s partly bout how we learn to forgive ourselves, but mostly about marching yourself through Moore’s amazing writing, her sentences piling up in your head like Monet’s haystacks.
Sally Rooney’s “Mr. Salary” and Conversations with Friends
I read two books by the Irish writer Sally Rooney, I felt that since we’re in Ireland, I should dive into it, and both had to do with a young woman who manages to get as her boyfriend a richer older man. I don’t know if this a fascination of hers. Sally Rooney is twenty-seven years old. In “Mr. Salary,” a young woman has an older friend who is rich and she is into him and he likes her a lot but doesn’t think that their relationship is appropriate but he finally succumbs and they sleep together. In Conversations with Friends, two girls previously lovers become friends with a rich couple, one of them, Frances, has an affair with the husband which finally ends when he tells his wife because he still loves his wife. He does like the girl a lot, but he loves his wife the most and they are both rich and they understand each other—touch of Gatsby? And then the little Frances gets sick and then she pines for the husband and at the end, she get back with the girlfriend but she still pines for the husband and at the very end it looks like they might start the affair again, but he still loves his wife and he isn’t leaving her and Frances still loves her girlfriend. It’s one of those kind of conversational/relationship books. Her other big book is Normal People. Everyone seems to really love her books, but I might be the wrong reader.
Wild Milk, Sabrina Orah Mark
My friend Nicelle Davis would love this book more than life itself, and in fact, she could have written it. I love the publisher, The Dorothy Project and everything they do. This is a book of small pieces that wander around like deer in a field and in a way, they come to a conclusion and in a way they don’t. But you feel like your brain did a little hop skip reading them. They are a little like a poem that started to become a story and then it changed its mind, they’re like ideas set to unspool.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson
In spite of his years of heroin addiction, or maybe because of it, Johnson was able to give us stories in frightening clarity of some pretty freaked up characters. “The Starlight on Idaho,” a story set in rehab although you could argue that it could be shorter has moments of absolute brilliance. “My oldest brother is somebody who the state of Texas won’t let him possess scissors,” he writes wondering why his brother had to tear out his arrest picture from the Dallas paper and send it to them. He argues with his grandmother who thinks that they are “a litter of geniuses,” that considering the number of jail terms in the family, the facts speak for themselves. “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” might be the best story in the collection. Centered on the Elvis’ obsession of a writer named Mark, it takes the whole idea down the rabbit hole of madness. Denis Johnson had a gift of being able to make you, the reader feel that you are in safe hands, that the story would take you some place, so even when it doesn’t seem to be taking you anywhere in particular, you follow, in a car out to a far off ranch where the buzzards are circling a naked man, to the county lockup where Strangler Bob explains the circumstances that led him to killing his wife and then sitting down to eat a chicken dinner. Johnson is in the deep slop of human existence, the welling up darkness of it. He isn’t going to let the reader breathe and relax and start thinking life is sweet. Even when he’s got his protagonist walking out of Pelican Bay, there’s no way you think things are good, no way, the sky is still dark.
A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli
This book makes you feel as a writer that you haven’t even touched the surface of writing. Ian McEwan called it a “a sparse, beautiful and shocking novel.” The writing is so good, and the five characters so well wrought. Three of them function together like three pieces of a clock, and then two more characters are introduced to un-clock them from their German purpose across the cold wasteland of Poland. There are degrees of evil, degrees of hunger, degrees of desperation to which we stoop and swoop. We all find our darkness in this book, the reader descending into the farmhouse, putting his or her own hands greedily into the bowl. My husband had started reading this, I took it from him. I read it at one sitting. I could not stop. The grit stays with me, the snow, the winter, the gristle of it. When I woke this morning, the wind still whistled through my rafters. The innocence and the evil held in the balance until one wins out.
A Devil Comes to Town, Paolo Maurensig
This book certainly has a feeling of Calvino with a bit of fairytale tucked in as well. It’s a literary romp. A priest finds himself in a small town where everyone is secretly a writer. Then, a publisher comes to town and sets up shop, establishing a literary prize of ten thousand francs. Our priest is certain that the publisher is the devil, yet the priest is given the responsibility of sifting the manuscripts, and thus he begins to be aware of the secrets of everyone in the town. If everyone is a writer, and there is one publisher, that publisher has all the power and thus becomes a sort of deity, one would have to determine a good or bad deity. If a publisher accepts your work and does everything you want for the book, they’re a god. If they do not do everything you want, they’re evil and if they turn your book down, well, they are at least an idiot. It’s a fun read especially if you work in publishing.
Because She Never Asked, Enrique Vila-Matas
The first part of this little book is simply a short story which is a satisfying read about a young woman who wants to imitate a famous artist. What follows is layers of meta-fiction as we find that this story was written so that the famous artist could act it out and go some island and find a ghost, but maybe the writer only imagined a conversation with the artist, and maybe the artist finally takes pity and does meet him when he’s dying. Maybe her mother died. Maybe he is already a ghost. At the end, I was shaking my head and glad of all the good French wine I’d been drinking to help me really absorb the layers of story. Underneath every story is the story of death.
Things I Don’t Want to Know, Deborah Levy
This is a book for writers about travels and writing. I used to hate books like this because they kind of seemed like, “Look at me, I get to travel all over the world!” But now that I also travel, I can’t complain because being a writer and a traveler you do wake up in different countries and wonder about the inside of your eyelids. Levy grew up in South Africa where her father was jailed for resisting apartheid and when he got out of jail and her parents returned to England, their marriage did not survive which seems so sad in the book. You get Levy’s longing, almost an itching from an early age to put words on the page and her horror at the situation in South Africa, which was her country. In England, in exile, she finds her voice. I liked these pieces about finding your way forward as an outsider as I too have done.
Nine Chambered Heart, Janice Pariat
All stories of love, mostly older men preying on younger women and leaving them in foreign countries, maybe because I’m in a foreign country and in love, walking around alleys, seeing other girls at cafes, wondering if they are being abandoned by their lovers, I’m not as in love with this, in damp Ireland I began, in sunny Prague I finished, the throngs of tourists buying puppets, my own dreams in thickets. These stories too thin for me, not enough muscle.
Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
We always take Clarice to foreign countries. We go to bed with her and get up. In this, of course, the protagonist marries a man who does not love her and then visits the woman who is his lover and we are not sure as the discourse on family and politics rolls on if the relationships matter or the country. Lispector is drowning in Brazil and its thick heat and the woman is lost by the end of the story. Or perhaps the woman is a country. When you go to another country, take Clarice and you too will be lost.
We are going home and I will read again American novelists and I will go back to the manuscripts. Back to work.