Tag Archives: Ishiguro

May/June Books

Like a lonesome cowboy and a wanderin’ hobo, I will soon be taking my leave of this humble island – for a month, that is. I survived Game of Thrones, I survived the semester, I survived many big editing projects. A childhood friend from Colombia came to visit, as did my sister (her first visit to the UK in thirteen years! As my uncle observed, Granny was only 89 then, as opposed to 102.) And now it is time for the wind to blow the empty husk of my body away *praying hands emoji* For twenty-six days, I shall be like a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive, nobody calling me up for favours and nobody’s future to decide. Blessed be. I don’t know how many more times in my life I’ll be able to take off like this so I’m going to enjoy and appreciate the hell out of it!

What, pray then, did I read over the past month and a half?













I read two sci-fi books, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which I read earlier this year). Bottom of the Sky is the more ‘literary’ of the two, a homage to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, in terms of content and style. I very much enjoy Fresán’s raw energy and enthusiasm, even though I found the main plot (a love story between two guys and a girl) kinda babyish.

Ancillary Sword I arguably enjoyed more. Much has been made out of Leckie’s “experimental” narration, in which gender isn’t specified; everyone is narrated as ‘she.’ This… isn’t that weird? I mean, come ON.

I like the central concept of the trilogy very much – it’s basically narrated from the point of view of an A.I., the central intelligence of an Iain Banks-esque spaceship, who becomes trapped in single human body (to put it very simply). I like the strangeness of Leckie’s narration a lot; she’s definitely created a world that feels very “other” – characters never nod or shake their heads, for example, they always gesture. And I like how Leckie is always specific about what language they’re speaking, what terms do and don’t translate. The themes of Rome-esque empire expansion and colonialism are also very cool, even if a bit heavy-handed at time. So yeah, I would recommend this one, with the caveat that I sometimes find it hard to understand what’s happening on the page – not because of the narration, but because I find myself craving just a bit more BASIC KNOWLEDGE about how things in this world ACTUALLY WORK. Like – how is the narrator able to communicate/watch the other soldiers on the ship, for example, when she’s no longer an A.I.? In this case, it’s like I basically just had to arbitrarily tell myself “okay, I guess this is a rule in this world, she can still watch her soldiers even though she’s no longer an A.I.” without having any idea of the LOGISTICS behind this. Like, can all captains of all ships do this, or just her, because of her A.I. nature? I WANT TO KNOW.

Anyway, I look forward to finishing the trilogy.

Books by people I vaguely know/am connected to


















UGH, sometimes I suffer from a terrible ennui of trying to stay ON TOP OF MY READING, especially of books by people I know/am vaguely connected to/want to support, and sometimes it causes me TERRIBLE GUILT. Does anyone else ever feel that way??? There must be a word in Japanese or Icelandic that describes it. But I am not perfect; I am only human.

In any case, I was able to read Your Fault by Andrew Cowan, Mothers by Chris Powers, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal and Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry. Your Fault is written by my former teacher, the first person who ever made me feel truly validated as a writer, like I was someone who had something worth saying, AND FOR THAT I WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. So it pleases me to say that Your Fault is genuinely a deeply interesting and provocative book: narrated in the second person, with the narrator looking back on his life in 1960’s England, it’s an examination of masculinity, judgement, and shame.

Chris Powers and I share the same publisher, and his debut book Mothers a very strong collection of stories, with recurrent themes of travel and escape. The story set at the wedding in Mexico, in which a guy’s on-and-off secret lover is now the groom, was probably my favourite (who doesn’t love a hot illicit shame-inducing make-out session in the dark, amirite?).  The Doll Factory is a historical thriller set in Victorian England and while historical fiction is not my thing (with the exception of Hilary Mantel), I REALLY enjoyed reading this; it was the perfect book to read during marking season, when I needed something relaxing and enjoyable to wind down with in the evening. It’s dark and Dickens-esque and has a good plot. And Stranger Baby was a poetry collection by one of my favourite poets, Emily Berry, an alumni from the same university as me, and was just as strong and memorable as I expected it to be (my favourite was this poem, which closes the collection).

Other books I read

Okay, now onto the “juicy” stuff. Lord of all the Dead by Javier Cercas was purchased by me (along with three other books – SO MUCH FOR MY BOOK BUYING BAN!!!) at a European-themed literature event, at which Cercas was in attendance. During the talk he spoke about his interest in writing about what truth means – what we want to hear versus what we want to tell, what should be written vs what needs to be written (yes, I took notes on my phone while he was talking – I am OBSESSED with this man, let me tell you. OBSESSED). He talked about how a common theme in his fiction is how to deal with the inheritance of the civil war, and if Soldados de salamis was a vindication of the best past of the country, then this book, Lord of all the Dead, is the acknowledgement of its  worst. The book is about his mother’s cousin, a teenager who joined the Fasicsts at seventeen and died two years later in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. So basically, there’d always been this awkward shadow cast over Cercas’ youth – the fact that the family “hero” had been fighting for the “wrong” side, and had arguably died a pointless death. Can you be noble and pure and still fight for a mistaken cause? How can decent men be drawn to fascism? At the talk, Cercas said, (paraphrased from my notes):

“It’s quite easy to know what to do with the ‘good’ past. But what do we do with the bad past? Conceal it? Invent it? I thought when I was young, I could not deal with it – this family member who was a heroe in famly lore, a young man who went to war to save our family. We are our heritage. I am my family. I am my country. Know it. Acknowledge the complexity. Understand it. To understand is not to justify. To understand is the contrary – it gives you the instruments to not make the same mistakes. If you know your inheritance, you can understand it; you can control it. If not, it controls you and you repeat the same mistake. I write not to be written. I became a writer to avoid becoming the things that wanted to confine me.”

SO INTERESTING, no? The other aspect of the book I found super fascinating was its discussion of heroism. The title comes from the Odyssey, from a part in which Ulysses confronts Achilles in the underworld with Hades. Achilles is described as the perfect man, the ideal hero: someone who gave his life for a bigger cause, and died a “perfect death.” As the Greeks didn’t believe in heaven, Achilles would live on in the equivalent, in everyone’s memory: as man who did what should be done. Ulysses, on the other hand, is a man who grows old – the opposite of Achilles. And so we have two competing viewpoints of masculinity, of what it means to live a “good” life. And in the confrontation with Ulysses in the underworld, Achilles acknowleges that he has made a mistake: I would rather be humble and alive as opposed to lord of all the dead.

Powerful, fascinating stuff. Definitely my favourite book of this reading period.

The Lighthouse by Allison Moore and Nocturnes by the always reliable Kazuo Ishiguro were also two very strong reads. The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012 and published by the always reliable Salt Publishers (ugh, that’s another reading list I can never stay on top of – supporting the indies. THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS IN THE WORLD! TOO MANY! I CAN’T HANDLE THEM ALL!!!). Ahem. Anyway, Lighthouse was a strong read and I think I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Moore’s readable, understated style. The Lighthouse is a very ‘simple’ story on the surface level – the story of a man on a walking holiday in Germany – but it feels like there’s a lot more going on underneath – a terrible sense of dread and tension, an obsession with smells (the narrator’s job is manufacturing artificial scents), flashbacks of a weird quasi-incestuous relationship with the neighbour who becomes his stepmother. I think Moore is going to warrant a PhD thesis overview of her work one day.

I only just finished Nocturnes yesterday, in this weird period where I don’t want to start a book that I’m not going to be able to finish before I leave. I’d never read short fiction by Ishiguro before (are these the only short stories he’s ever attempted?) but I unsurprisingly really enjoyed this. There some very strong stories here, especially the third one, “The Malvern Hills.” I was surprised by the amount of SLAPSTICK and COMEDY in some of these stories (especially the second one) – who would have thought Ishiguro had it in him!!

I liked how most of the stories felt like metaphors for writing – in fact, I’m CONVINCED that’s what they are. The title story, ‘Nocturne,’ about a sax player who gets plastic surgery because his ex-wife thinks that’s what will make him successful, has a lot of interesting bits about what true talent is – what it means to be successful. And the last story, “Cellist,” about a self-professed “virtuoso” cell player who’s actually never touched a cello in their life, was also really powerful – Bolaño-esque in its considerations of what it means to be a “true” artist. The last paragraph, in which we glimpse someone in the future, bitter and twisted, is really affecting. And I like the Gatsby-esque position from which the story is narrated – by a band member who seems to find contentment and enjoyment in his art, even though he’s not super famous or “successful” in a way that mainstream capitalist society would recognise.

So overall, a truly enjoyable collection. I love that Ishiguro’s stories have such heart in them, and that he’s so obsessed with themes like regret and “the life not lived.”

Now I just need to decide what books I’m bringing with me in my suitcase… I might be REALLY strict and restrain myself to my Kindle, and The Makioka Sisters, and maybe one other ‘big’ book I can read on the plane…

Leave a comment

Filed under books, contemporary, non-fiction, poetry, review, short stories

“nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old”

I read this column by Oliver Sacks recently and can’t stop thinking about it. It pretty much broke my heart. I can’t get the last paragraph out of my head: “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.” It’s the kind of Big Question that tons of thinkin’ and contemplatin’ will do pretty much nothing to solve.

Today’s gray rainy sky isn’t doing much either for my general Abraham Lincoln-esque melancholy and moodiness–God, does it ever make the humidity of the East Coast seem like a far and distant memory! This was a VERY emotional and intense summer for me (high school friends from Colombia getting married! Going back to Mexico! A very intense six weeks of summer school work!) and it has frankly been a relief to slip back into the habits and routines of England, even when it’s all tinged with the nostalgic, sehnsucht, saudade knowledge that I will (probably; most likely) be leaving again soon. For good? Who knows. Who knows anything? If you know something about anything could you please tell me? ;D

I’ve enjoyed my time here in England very much, but all things must end. I’m feeling pretty ready to leave but obviously have a few things to take care of first before that can happen (like, oh, IDK, submitting my PhD, DUHHHHR). In the meantime I’m glad to see that the library has gotten their purchasing act on over the summer and has some books in stock that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time. God, reading!! What would I do without you?!

All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job at explaining the effect that this book had on me…maybe it’s the main reason I feel so moody and emotional this morning. Or maybe it’s the fact that I was up until midnight last night finishing it because I couldn’t put it down. Reading this book made me feel like I couldn’t breath. I actually read some parts out loud incredulously to myself because I couldn’t believe the cathartic rawness of the dialogue, while my cat blinked at me incredulously. It’s turned me into a shitty movie critic, wanting to exclaim stuff like “I laughed! I cried!!” It’s hard to articulate the urgent pain of this book, the black anguish that is only made palatable by the Lorrie Moore-like humor. This is the kind of book where I think it’s absolutely essential to know the autobiographical underpinnings of it… I don’t know if I would have maybe read it quite the same way if I’d taken it as “pure” fiction. The only other book I can think of that came close to having a similar effect on me was the equally brilliant Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

I don’t know. I guess what I find most powerful about books like this one or Legend of a Suicide is that I feel like they’re “teaching” me how to live in face of one of the most spectacularly awful scenarios I can imagine…. and the “lesson” that this book seems to be teaching (or at least what I got out of it) is that humor, writing and reading can be an absolute lifeboat in face of all the dukkha that Buddhists like to rant about. After the narrator’s father steps in front of a train (and this is not even a spoiler considering the rest of the book, believe me,) “he had seventy-seven dollars on him at the time and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.” (48) You still have to eat, indeed: talk about taking Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” to the ultimate level!

The voice of the narrator is above and beyond what makes this book worth reading. Listen to her response to a therapist’s advice: “When my father killed himself I went to see one and he suggested I write my father a letter… I thanked the therapist and left thinking but my father is dead now. He won’t receive this letter. What’s the point? Can I just have my one hundred and fifty-five dollars back to buy some Chardonnay and a bag of weed?” (115) Or her reaction to her mother’s question: “How are you, sweetheart? she asked. What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter. Not much, I said. Doing some work.” (203) I kept laughing out loud SO many times while reading this book, and considering the subject matter, that’s really saying something.

The other commendable aspect about this book is the pace. As the narrator herself reflects, “Now I’m learning something. Go into hard things quickly, eagerly, then retreat. It’s the same thing for thinking, writing and life. It’s true what Jason said about cleaning a septic tank.” (243) The attitude of going into hard things “quickly” and “eagerly” is a fair assessment of the book itself: it comes off like the ultimate cleaning of the dirtiest septic tank ever. The pace helps with the intense subject matter: the book moves fast, speckled with believable moments and memorable supporting characters. Even though the setting is fairly limited (the majority of the scenes take place in a hospital, and by far most of the conversations in the novel take place between just two characters), this book still reads very quickly, never dragging or feeling stagnant.

Even the narrator’s mother comments reflexively on the challenge of writing a book about “sad” topics: “Okay, she’s sad!” she says at one point about a book. “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!” This book definitely focuses more on the “getting on with it” then the million-and-one descriptions. Ultimately, the biggest question of this book (why does the sister want to die?) is ultimately never answered. Is it a suicide gene? Genetic? A historical burden from their grandparents being massacred in Russia during the revolution; a sort of hereditary violence that cannot be cast off? The pressure from being “perfect”? Self-absorption? The narrator doesn’t know. Nobody knows anything, except that “she wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”

“If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.” (219)

This book made me rethink about how I want to live my life. That’s really all I’ve been trying to say.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)

This was another great book to read, albeit not as intense for me as All My Puny Sorrows. I know a few people (okay, two) who didn’t like this book because “it wasn’t as good as Never Let Me Go” or “I don’t like fantasy” or “it was sooo flatly written.” To each her/his own, of course, but fie on all that, I say. Fie on it! Because BOY, can Ishiguro write killer devastating endings that make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the teeth!!

All in all, even though I know (two) people who ho-hummed at this book or even downright sniffed at it–I loved it. I totally respect that Ishiguro has written a follow-up to Never Let Me Go that is completely, radically different (as are all of his books from each other, I suppose)–in terms of voice, subject matter, tone and even genre. Do you know how hard that is to do?! To write so many books that are SO different from each other?? Not that I know what I’m talking about, but still…

All in all, I didn’t love this book as much as Never Let Me Go, but its message still hit me pretty hard. The dialogue is a bit stilted at times (how many times can the main character Axl use the word ‘princess‘ in reference to his wife?) but I eventually figured it was intentional. Some people have said that this is the most ‘Japanese’ of Ishiguro’s books and I’m thinking maybe it kind of is? Again… not like I know what I’m talking about… but maybe people are saying that because of the detached language? IDK, I’m basing this comment off a wikipedia entry for The Tale of Genji so don’t take me too seriously.

What you SHOULD take seriously is that the message of this book is pretty heartbreaking, if you let it hit you the right way, if you let it get under you skin. And yeah, thin-skinned person that I am, this book hit me hard. You gotta let it in.

Is this a story about religious fundamentalism? The chapters narrated by the young Saxon boy most emphasized this for me, especially in this killer final sentence in his section: “His mother was gone, most likely gone beyond all retrieving, but the warrior was well and waiting for him.” Yup, the figure of the mother (compassion and fertility and empathy) is dead; long live the warrior who tells him to hate all Britons for the rest of his life and basically be a mindless killing machine. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers.” So is the buried giant the inescapable cycle of violence? The forces of history that crush ordinary people like Axl and Beatrice underfoot so that their moving love stories are forever lost in the shadow of legends like Arthur & Merlin & dragon slaying?

Or is this a story about old age and forgetting? (I read a review somewhere that claimed it was a parable to Alzeheimer’s, which I can kind of see.) In Never Let Me Go the narrator relished her memories and spent the entire novel remembering/reliving her past. In The Buried Giant, characters can’t help but forget due to an eerie mist that has settled over the land, and at times find themselves wondering “is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” Is it not better, indeed.

I also love how the legacy of Gaiwan, Arthur and Merlin are played with in this novel–maybe I’m crazy, but it made me think of the Iraq War and ISIS. “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold forever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery?” Rather than a “fantasy” novel I would call this a “mythological” one… or even allegorical… It was really hard not to read this and interpret everything as a parable, even though I was never quite sure it what it was a parable of. I was okay with that uncertainty, though.

I just hope that if they make this into a movie, they don’t change that final scene. Thank God for books and reading and funky Vampire Weekend songs to help fight off the ravages and brutality of time and life and saudade and dukkha and everything!!


Filed under books, death, review, women writers