Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On "Cake" by Sarah Rose Etter (1610 words) ****

The connection between food and erotica goes back millennia. Song of Solomon talks of breasts like grape clusters, and Christina Rossetti has a poem about fruits on sale at a market, working the metaphor for something a little more juicy. Etter's "Cake" falls right into that tradition, though for her the metaphor is taken to its literal extreme. I guess all folks have their fetishes. Read the story here.

On "Five Women Who Loved Love" by Ihara Saikaku ****

Five women, five love stories. The title is pretty much what you get. Each of Ihara Saikaku's stories end in tragedy, save the final one, and even in that one there are two deaths along the way, two tragedies that would have made for a sad story had not the story carried on. In that last story, a homosexual man who has lost two former gay lovers (and then pledges to give up women--quite noble of him, really, seeing as he was never attracted to them) takes up with a woman who he thinks is a man. Her devotion to him finally wins him over despite his discovery of the truth. Another story involves a woman who starts a fire in an attempt to have a chance to slip away to see her lover, with tragic results.

The first story in the book is typical. It involves a playboy who eventually finds one true love. They attempt to elope but are caught. Money comes up missing, and the former playboy is blamed and sentenced to death. Soon after, the money is found--he wasn't a thief after all. His lover decides to kill herself (only as is to be expected in all of these stories), but after some discussion is convinced instead to become a nun and live a spiritual, monastic life.

It's seventeenth-century fiction, and it's pretty good. It's probably a little sappy, but because I'm reading it in modern translation, it doesn't come across nearly so bad as such melodrama might come off in the original tongue--or maybe the Japanese are simply better at keeping the stories simple than the English are. Whatever the matter is, Ihara Saikaku's point seems to be that love is born in tragedy, and without the possibility of loss, the value of love can't be weighed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On "Salinka Mura and the Typewriter" by Charles Talkoff (910 words) *****

Simply put, I love this story. It's Richard Brautigan silly, but like the best of Richard Brautigan's short stories, it makes some kind of odd sense and even manages to carry a plot. Talkoff turns a typewriter into a literal object. Okay, I guess typewriters are literal objects, so I'm not making a lot of sense. But what I mean is that he turns the whole essence of a typewriter--not just the physical thing itself but also the things it does--into an object. It's beautiful. It makes me want to be a typewriter. Or actually, I think I'd rather be Salinka Mura so I could have beautiful things written on me--or rather, typed. Read the story here.

On "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, translated and abridged by Edward G. Seidensticker ***

This abridged version includes just twelve of the first seventeen chapters in Murasaki Shikibu's epic. There are fifty-four chapters total--amounting to six volumes in Arthur Waley's original translation--the first forty-one of which are about Genji, and the last thirteen of which are about his son. The chapters chosen for Seidensticker's abridgment focus on Genji's love life, which is, to put it mildly, active. Genji has good looks and natural ability to go with just about everything he does as well. Perhaps this accounts for why women--and men--find him so attractive.

He does have his enemies, namely the emperor's first wife, who wants her own son placed on the throne. Genji is thus demoted to commoner status, though he has court privileges (not being an expert on ancient Japanese affairs, how some things work in the novel are a little lost on me). This is to his own good, as far as love life is concerned. Without responsibilities, he has time to woo five to ten ladies at any given time and even knock up his father's concubine (the son that results from the affair later becomes emperor).

Genji has a wife too. She's pretty cold, but no doubt, as much as Genji may complain about her and blame her for his seeking solace in the company of others, his continued dalliances with other women only add to her coldness. It is only when she dies as a result of childbirth that he finally finds some way to appreciate her and that mostly through excessive grief. Is it guilt that drives him? I don't know. It seems a short repentance, for within a year or so, he's back to his philandering ways, and this brings its share of troubles, which I won't go into here. At some point, we learn that a soothsayer has told him he will have three children (all by different women apparently)--two to become emperors. And the abridgment ends at a convenient spot, with Genji no longer quite as interested in romantic affairs, wishing to leave court life, but now devoted to seeing that his children are well provided for.

This is a novel written a thousand years ago. The mannerisms seem foreign, but the characters and passions involved seem as current as ever--save that much of the seduction takes place by the point of a pen (forget what the women look like--how nice is their handwriting?).

Seidensticker notes that if the abridgment causes one to want to read the full book, he's done his job. I can't say he quite worked his magic on me. I enjoyed his abridged version, and I'm curious to know where the story goes from here, but I'd be just as happy to read a synopsis of the rest of the plot as to read the other thirty-seven chapters.

An online version of another translation of the book is available here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

On "The Floor Champion of Foosball" by Carrie Hall (2859 words) ****

I admit it. I was first taken in by this story because of the title--specifically because of the word foosball. I'd never been much of a fan--I always preferred air hockey growing up. But when I moved to Athens half a decade ago, my friend Al and most of my other acquaintances were big into foosball, and as a result a certain adoration for the game budded within me. Sure, I'd still take air hockey or shuffleboard over the other, but the fact is that when Al and Aaron and Julien and company stopped playing, there was a small hole in my bar world.

So the story . . . Set on a psych ward in some place we don't know, the way pysch wards often are worlds unto themselves, this story manages to convey the essence of four very interesting and disturbed characters, as well as the setting itself. For our narrator, foosball is her way out--or maybe perhaps more accurately just another way for her to lord herself over the others. I can't say this piece makes me hope for the white-suited men to take me away anytime soon, but I suppose that's a good thing--you know, that I want to continue to be normal, rational, stable. . . . Read the story here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

On "Shot Girls" by Kim Chinquee (5097 words) ****

This is a story about two sisters, each of whom wants to be like the other, about what it means to become the other. Okay, I've made the story sound like Parent Trap 3, but it's not like that at all. The girls in this story go through some messed-up stuff. Okay, maybe it does sound like Parent Trap 3--but this definitely isn't Disney fodder. These girls aren't smiling at the end. These girls grow up, in some rather unpleasant ways. Read the story here.

On "Anthology of Japanese Literature," compiled and edited by Donald Keene ****

For an uninitiated person like me, this was a really good quick and dirty rundown on early Japanese literature. And that is partly why I picked it over other anthologies, which seemed too long or too focused. Keene aims rather to give a person a real feel for what the Japanese were writing up until 1870, and with just 450 pages, he appears to do an excellent job. (Another anthology I am planning to read will cover the post-1945 period, and yet another the late 1980s, so I'll have covered pretty much the swoop of Japanese literature, save the realism/naturalism/Meiji eras between 1870 and 1945, which is a bit of shame--I had thought I'd caught that period in one of the anthologies but apparently not, though many of the writers from those periods do show up in one anthology or another via their early or late work.) So here's a short rundown on the works (most of the selections, some of them complete) in Keene's anthology:

Ancient Period (to 794 A.D.)
The Luck of the Sea and the Luck of the Mountains

Heian Period (794-1185)
Kukai: Kukai and His Master
The Tales of Ise
Ki No Tsurayuki: TheTosa Diary
Poetry from Six Collections
The Mother of Michitsuna: Kagero Nikki
Murasaki Shikibu: Yugao (from The Tale of Genji, which is available here)
Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book
Murasaki Shikibu: Diary (available here)
The Daughter of Takasue: The Sarashina Diary (available here or here)
Poetry in Chinese
Ryojin Hisho
The Lady Who Loved Insects

Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
The Tale of Heike
Kamo No Chomei: An Account of My Hut
Tales from the Uji Collection
The Captain of Naruto

Muromachi Period (1333-1600)
Yoshida Kenko: Essays in Idleness
The Exile of Godaigo
Seami Motokiyo: The Art of the No
Kan'ami: Kiyotsugu: Sotoba Komachi
Seami Motokiyo: Birds of Sorrow
Seami Motokiyo: Atsumori
Seami Motokiyo: The Damask Drum
The Bird-Catcher of Hades
Poems in Chinese by Buddhist Monks
Three Poets at Minase
The Three Priests

Tokugawa Period (1600-1868)
Ihara Saikaku: What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker
Ihara Saikaku: The Umbrella Oracle
Ihara Saikaku: The Eternal Storehouse of Japan
Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road of Oku
Matsuo Basho: Prose Poem on the Unreal Dwelling
Mukai Kyorai: Conversations with Kyorai
Haiku by Basho and His School
Chikamatsu on the Art of the Puppet Stage
Chikamatsu Monzaemon: The Loves Suicides of Sonezaki
Ejima Kiseki: A Wayward Wife
Jippensha Ikku: Hizakurige
Takizawa Bakin: Shino and Hamaji
Haiku of the Middle and Late Tokugawa Period
Waka of the Tokugawa Period
Poetry and Prose in Chinese

Of the first four sections, I particularly enjoyed the poems selected from Man'yoshu, the passage from the Sarashina Diary, and Kamo No Chomei's "An Account of My Hut." Man'yoshu is one of the first major works in Japanese literature--it's a collection of poetry put together by an emperor, from various sources. And its quality seems outstanding, at least in the selections Keene has chosen. While British literature starts with a story of Grendel, in the epic poem Beowulf, which sounds much more interesting than I ever found it to actually be, and American literature starts with Puritan sermons, Japanese literature starts with poetry. Okay, there are prose pieces that are like myths--some similar to Native American materials (which are usually unintelligible to me and not very interesting)--but most of the early stuff is poetry, simple lyric poetry, short, as Japanese poetry tends to be. And I enjoy it. I think what I like about the poetry as opposed to the more mythic pieces in our English literature is that it's easy to identify, to understand what the poet is writing and experiencing. And that's also part of what's so interesting, these poets thinking about their mortality, about the weather, about love--they're writing over one thousand years ago, and they could be writing now. I don't know if that's comforting or sad or what, the idea that humans struggle with the same issues through time immemorial. Maybe it's just surreal, when I think about how long ago that was and how much similar it was to today, and how, if time goes on, humans will be worrying and thinking about the same thing a thousand years after I'm gone also.

The Sarashina Diary centered around a woman whose parents sent her to the royal court to live. She was older, around twenty-six, and unmarried. She didn't really want to go, but did in deference to authority. She'd heard that many women found husbands there, though she figured herself a bit too old for that. As the plot fell out, it was hard to believe this was a diary, rather than a short story. It seemed complete and thematic and sad, with a rise and climax and fall as in any good story. The woman, as it turns out, does meet a man one day. But it is only for a brief period. They exchange a few messages via poetry, but for whatever reason circumstances don't allow them to actually begin communicating much in person (there are always others around for one). About six months later, without contact, the man shows up at a social function in hopes of seeing her. She doesn't know and so misses him. He comes to visit her, leaves a note. She misses him again but writes a reply. Alas, he is gone by the time its ready. Such a sad story of near meetings. What also struck me about this piece, and many others, however, was how prevalent poetry seems to have been in the society then. People wrote of their day in poetry, and they courted in poetry as well--exchanging haiku and tanka with potential mates. Wouldn't it be a curious world if we did that nowadays? But maybe e-mail is equivalent. Somehow, it just doesn't seem as romantic as a poem.

As for "An Account of My Hut," it was a piece that reminded me a lot of Ecclesiastes. Kamo No Chomei was a Buddhist who, in this short account, thinks heavily about his life, about the happenings in Japan, and about how little of it is of any lasting consequence. Amid all this there are recountings of several distasters that hit Japan during a relatively short span during his life (an earthquake, a plague), as well as recountings of his homes, which get progressively smaller as he ages. In the end, he realizes he needs little more than a ten-foot hut--and he ponders why he's even bother to write. Lots of deep thinking. It's pretty short. I wish there were a translated version available online to share.

From the Tokugawa Period there was also much to admire. Three works in particular stood out for me, two of which I'd like to return to at some point to read the rest of the work. Ihara Saikaku's "What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker," one section from his novel Five Women Who Loved Love, seemed intriguing to me in part because of its fairly modern-seeming structure. I tend to go for those kind Gertrude Stein-type Three Lives books. This one covers five lives, specifically the erotic parts of them at that--and in seventeenth-century Japan, there is much to be curious about, given the very different times and culture.

I also liked Jippensha Ikku Hizakurige, a tale of two travelers on the road. Apparently Jippenshu wrote a whole series of these, all of the light and humorous but nevertheless providing an entertaining and interesting insight into the Japanese culture of the early 1800s.

Finally, the poems and prose in Chinese were interesting if not for themselves then for the historical perspective that they offered. Keene chooses to end his anthology with a set of works that discuss, in particular, the coming of Westerners, the opening of the ports, and Japan's seeming weakness in the face of these. There is much criticism in these poems and the one short profile offered of the leaders who fail to fight back, who let the barbarian Westerners in. And there is hate--hate of the Dutch and of the Russians and of all the others from the West; and hate also, for Japanese themselves, who feel as if in this dawning of a new age, Japan has lost its way and its power. In some eras, women act like men, one writer intones sadly (contemporary political correctness aside), while in others men act like women.

Friday, July 18, 2008

On "Lifelines" by B. J. Hollars (1521 words) ****

I love fantastic realism, but so much of the genre that I come across on the Net tries too hard, compromises with the very heart of what fantastic realism does, which is merge the two elements in such a way that the fantastic seems very real. At it's best, though, the genre makes for great reading and interesting commentary on one of humanity's conditions (generally one to two of them at a time--social, ethical, existential, whatever). This story, which appears in Fawlt Magazine--itself an interesting endeavor, themed around various human faults with each issue (and somehow managing still to have enough to select from to be good)--this story is about man who grows up with a broken heart, which somehow requires that he wears mittens full time. I couldn't help but identify with him in his early life, the way everyone wants to protect him, which in turn isolates him, as my rather frail frame as a kid tended to do to me (kids wouldn't let me play football with them, lest I get hurt). I also thought of other cases, a kid I knew who actually had had a heart operation, and who couldn't do any sort of aerobic activity and who was, thus, likely even more isolated than I ever was. Hollars's does such a great job of painting this picture that I was thinking from a point of view I hadn't really considered before, and then the story grows as the character does, leading to its tragic end. Expect to read more about Hollars's stories on this blog; I've been coming across him quite a bit lately and have generally been pleased. Read the story here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On "The Dead" by James Joyce (15,635 words) *****

There have been enough critical reviews of this classic story that there's no need to wax on about what it all means or how gloriously good this story is. I merely note that a couple of weeks ago, in preparation for a short story reading club I'm a member of, I returned to "The Dead" after more than fifteen years hiatus. I love James Joyce, and I like Dubliners--some of the stories, I love. I don't entirely understand all of the stories, though--Joyce's subtleties sometimes go over my head (though I'm sure any story's point is nothing a good critic couldn't explain). Or mabye I used to not understand some of the stories. That's what struck me on this reading, just how obvious Joyce makes he makes his theme of "The Dead" here. Did I miss all this when I was younger? Or had I simply forgotten it? As for the story itself, on this read, I found it a little slow, but all was forgiven by the time I reached the end and had chills going down my spine from just how moving the story had become. Read it online here.

On "Japanese Literature" by Roger Bersihand ***

Dated as this book is--it was published in 1956--it is a useful and quick resource for gaining a basic grasp on the various schools and happenings in Japanese literature, at least up until World War II, and even a little after. Think of it as an extended bibliographic essay of one hundred pages or so. I like how Bersihand gives a paragraph or so of historical context, then launches into the literature by genre. Sometimes, he resorts to mere lists of authors unfortunately, but at his best he has something to say about each one and where that writer fits into the literature of the time in terms of technique and form and influence. Occasionally, he quotes particularly beautiful passages. Interestingly, he seems willing to comment on whether the work has merit, something that one doesn't see critics do as much anymore, since all merit is now in the eye of the beholder and, in the eyes of Foucaultians, subject to power structures and so on.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On "Based on a True Story" by Dave Peters (886 words) *****

This is a story I've always wanted to write but could never get right. It's the story of the end of a life, and the seeming consciousness that goes along with it--the knowledge that you are going to die, in minutes--and what you are you going to do? I have never been able to find the intensity needed to put the story in the right place, that mix of mundane and superimportant, the will to live versus the growing resignation to fate. Peters, here, manages all of that with skill. At 886 words, this story seems so much longer than it really is. Time slows, as one would expect, at this moment, given the full-on lengthy, real-time description of the process of suffocation. But where too many stories would fail in this description, this one succeeds. I think the reason might be that Peters wisely shifts views in the middle, moving from the victim to those around. This has the effect of making things seem to take that much longer, and it increases the harshness and the sadness of the final paragraph as we watch the woman making her last stabs at air. Read the story here.

On "The History of Japan" by Louis G. Perez ****

Here is the primer on Japanese history that I was hoping for. Unlike Sadler's 1946 volume on Japanese history, which I found to focus too much on little things, and thus it largely failed to provide a general sense of what was going on, this one seems much better for an uninitiated reader. So, for example, Perez does a nice job of explaining how the Japanese emperor lost power to the shogun and feudal lords (namely because emperor's exempted certain people--particularly relatives--from taxation laws, which meant that as more and more people were exempted, the emperor lost financial power while the "private estates" of nontaxed people gained more and more; eventually these nontaxed estates hired their own warriors to guard themselves and became pretty independent, though in name they still honored the throne--the emperor was like a figurehead). The former book, by contrast, would have named off each feudal lord and each battle, and a clear understanding of the general dynamic would have been lost (at least to me).

This difference is especially clear in how the two books cover the 1500s, wherein Japan was involved in extensive civil war. The previous book, as noted, goes into each battle, which makes events hard to follow; Perez just notes it's a period of civil war. By 1600, with the country beginning to unite under the brutal campaign of Nabumura, history becomes much clearer--and that's when the previous book finally starts making sense and become enjoyable.

That's not to say the first book's attention to detail was completely useless. Perez greatly simplifies historical events. One would think, for example, from this Perez's text, that Japan pretty much just happily adopted Buddhism, when, in fact, as Sadler's book, with all its detail, makes clear, Buddhism was accepted only gradually and not without many doubts and battles over the course of a couple of centuries.

Perez's book is part of a series of basic histories on various contemporary nations of importance--The Greenwood Histories of Modern Nations. Books in the series, while they give the entire history of the nation from start to finish, apparently focus most on the more recent past. Indeed, about half of Perez's volume is devoted to the post-1800s (one reason I read Sadler's book was because it was more focused on early history, so I wanted something to balance Perez out). But the early material, while greatly truncated, is still informative enough to be a good outline. I'm impressed enough that I want to check out more volumes in this series. Sadly, the list price of fifty-five dollars means books in the series aren't likely to become part of my personal library.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

On "I Have Cancer, I Have Cancer" by Jody Madala (1461 words) ***

I have yet to come across something I didn't think was good on Anderbo. I'm sure it will happen at some point, but for now, I marvel at how the taste the editors and I seem to share. This latest story on Anderbo uses the second person. I am also a sucker for the second person. I think most people find second person pretentious or gimmicky. Perhaps, the fact that Choose Your Own Adventure novels were so much a part of my reading when I was young has made the second person seem simply natural to me, a great way to thrust me into the character's life, to make me feel part of the action. In Jody Madala's story, I'm a young, beautiful woman. There are worse things one could be. I'm a woman who does what so many other young women do. I'm kind of a cliche. And yet, I'm me--and those clichés are not clichés when it's me, my actual life. And I'm growing older, and I'm going out less, and I'm wishing I could hold on to what I have, what I had. And, well, the title tells it all. Read the story here.

On "A Short History of Japan" by A. L. Sadler **

This is the first of a series of books on the history and literature of Japan that I'm planning to read. If the rest of the books turn out like this one--and I know they won't--I will likely be pretty confused. Short, the book is, given that Japan's history goes back centuries. Unfortunately, the author doesn't have a good knack for summary. I know summarizing three thousand years of history in three hundred pages wouldn't be easy, and I'm not sure how exactly how one does that, but some authors manage quite well. With this short history, however, I didn't feel like I really got a sense of the nation. Rather, the story is too full of details--largely an account, in chronological order, of the rise and fall of royal families by name. This strategy would be akin to summarizing American history in two hundred pages by writing a page about each presidential election. In fact, that is almost what happens once the author gets around to writing about the twentieth century--endless paragraphs on who took who's spot in the cabinet with each new administration.

The history was published in 1946, so it breaks off basically with the start of World War II, which is an interesting and seemingly appropriate place to close the book. I'd read this one in part because of its focus on the earlier history of Japan, but much of that was a literal recounting of Japanese mythology, with little attention given to what it actually means. Sadler's book does hit its stride, however, in discussing the Tokugawa Period, the era when Japan finally united under a single Shogun. I'm hoping the next book on Japanese history on my list, which takes things into the current day, will be a bit easier to read for the underinitiated.