“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning…”

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I have put up a diaphanous net in my room. It is sheer, and sways slightly in whatever breeze comes our way, and I am certain the fire department will make me take it down when they come to inspect the school in October. Maybe I’ll just nod my head politely and ignore the directives, as I am prone to do at this stage of my career.

I am facing my last year of teaching, and it makes me happy-sad. Mostly, right now, it is making me sad.

My colleagues exclaim in wonder how it is possible that I am able to retire at the end of the year; my husband told me to say, “I know! These past thirty-five years went by so quickly!” Which they did.

I was offered a job with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools in West Germany fresh out of college. The principal said, “Let me see you teach,” and sat in the back of a fifth grade classroom where I was subbing all afternoon. When she called me into her office at 4:00 she told me I was hired, and I haven’t stopped teaching since.

Not when my son was born in 1991, nor when his father died in 1997. Not when I had surgeries on my feet or surgeries in my mouth. Fortunately, the areas in between have held up much better.

Teaching is what I know; teaching has been my life. Now I am looking at the end of this beautiful career spent with beautiful children. It is so strange to know that this coming class is the last new class I’ll ever greet.

In 1984, I was handed a set of manuals, the academic standards, and an empty classroom. Now, we have Smartboards and document cameras and Chromebooks and Google classroom, and I am the only one who still teaches cursive along with all the technology.

I teach origami, too, and the love of literature, and the joy of laughter.

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I think that the diaphanous net is symbolic of so many things: the years fluttering by; the old ways of pedagogy; time. What can I hold in my hand? Like Wilbur who watched Charlotte’s children fly away on their gossamer strings, I am watching what I have done, whom I have taught, all the things that I have been, sway in the breeze. It is the way of the world.

It is time for me to learn new things.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” Ecclesiastes 7:8 ESV

 

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marias (for Spanish Lit Month 2017)

The television broadcasts a film with Fred  MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck while Marta lies immovable on her double bed, dying.

Her son, who would not easily fall asleep, lies in his wooden cot under aeroplanes strung on thread just above his bed. They sway lightly in the air, reminding our narrator, Victor, of his own childhood planes.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword.

He is not well acquainted with Marta. He has come for dinner, and what he hopes will follow, while her husband is away in London. Surely he did not expect his evening to transpire as it has. In the course of this improbable event, of a woman dying while he is in her bedroom, he pauses to reflect.

….everything seems as nothing to us, everything becomes compressed and seems as nothing to us once it is over, then we always feel that we were not given enough time.

For awhile, he wonders if she has not in fact died. He returns to her apartment building, gazing at the windows on the fifth floor which belong to her apartment, hoping that perhaps she simply fell unconscious; he hopes that someone has taken care of her son whom he left sleeping in the cot.

But no, Marta has in fact died, and so the title’s implication expands to more than merely our narrator.  We think on Marta’s widowed husband, Dean, and her son, Eugenio, her father, Juan, and her sister, Luisa.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.

He suffers guilt, but also self examination. He is a ghostwriter, and therefore used to being behind the scene. He often refers to himself as being nobody.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal, and let fall thy pointless lance. Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow, let me be lead within thy bosom and at a bloody battle end thy days. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, despair and die.

There are all sorts of battles going on. The ones on television where aeroplanes on film are fighting in battle, the ones of Victor’s own making revealed to us as he reviews his life.

A large portion of the novel switches from the death of Marta to his divorce from Celia, with whom he was married for only three years. One evening, he questions if the prostitute he visits could be her. They look so similar, but he is uncertain, and even after he leaves her, and calls his ex-wife who is at home, he cannot be sure that she has not brought a customer home with her.

His battles are many, and tortuous. But, he is not the only one who endures them.

The novel ends with Marta’s husband and Victor in confrontation. Dean reveals his own battle within the details of his trip to London while his wife lay dying, unbeknownst to him, in Victor’s arms.

And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly: while we travel slowly towards our dissolution merely in order to traverse the back or reverse side of time, where one can no longer keep thinking or keep saying goodbye: “Goodbye laughter and goodbye scorn. I will never see you again, nor will you see me. And goodbye ardour, goodbye memories.”

It is a tragic novel, one which examines relationships thoroughly and deeply, as well as the individuals who live in them. After reading it, I see once again why Javier Marias has become one of my favorite writers.

Thank you to Richard and Stu who host Spanish Lit Month in July. Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll

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Today is a sunny afternoon at Centennial Beach, where I am sitting with my son intermittently watching the teenagers dive off the high board and reading this interesting little novel.

It’s a bit hard to make sense of it all, and whether that’s because it’s often difficult for me to fully comprehend Spanish literature, or that Noll is a particularly obtuse writer, I cannot say. Certainly the unnamed character in Atlantic Hotel is an enigma to me.

“Just like that, the guy was offering me a complete itinerary, something I wasn’t used to contemplating. But then there was the way his attitude made me suspicious – he seemed at least as cunning as everybody else in the bar put together. But, on the other hand, what was I sticking around for? Somebody is offering to be my oarsman across this river, I thought with relief.”

It certainly seems that he, the central character,  is in need of a guide. Or, at least some direction. He has random sex with the receptionist in the first hotel he frequents, one in which a dead body is being taken out on a gurney as he is entering the building. He befriends an American archeologist named Susan on a bus going from Rio to Florianópolis, who has overdosed on all kinds of pills in the night and put on sunglasses to hide her dilated eyes. He is aimlessly, it appears to me, traveling through Brazil from Copacabana to Santa Carina and beyond.

The bar tender’s brother, who has offered to give him a ride, proves to be a dangerous man who is hiding something. So our narrator slips away down a dirt road to end up at a monastery, in a small town named Viçoso, with exceptionally white sheets and walls. He sleeps in a bed, under a crucifix, wears a soutane while his own clothes are being washed, and administers last rites to an old, dying woman; it’s the third death he’s encountered in the last three or four days.

When he wakes in Arraiol in Rio Grande do Sul, after continuing on his journey, he discovers that he has undergone a terrible surgery, one which will leave him forever handicapped.

I scratch my head over the meaning of all this, the journey this poor man has taken without seeming to get anywhere, the dreamlike sequence of events, until I come to this line:

I found the world rather sad.

Yes.

Maybe this is what it all comes down to. Noll’s spare writing, portraying these bitter events, can point to this truth: The world is sad. And perhaps our journey through it does not differ very much from this nameless character, this man who has found no peace in the world, nor within his own body.

I curled up in the way I liked to sleep, said to Sebastiao that one day I hoped I would understand why all this had happened.

He doesn’t even understand why “all this” has happened. But, do we ever? Do we ever fully learn the reasons behind our suffering, or the answers to our unanswered questions?

I’m beginning to see the wonder of this bizarre little book after all.

Find another review at roughghosts, and thoughts on the author at Literary Hub. Thanks to Two Lines Press for my review copy.

Confessions by Kanae Minato

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“It’s not just that your bodies are growing and changing. I know what you’ve been up to.”

From the very beginning we are presented with tension between children and their teacher. From the very beginning we know why she is talking to her class about this year being her last.

“So why am I resigning? Because Manami’s death wasn’t an accident. She was murdered by some of the students in this very class.”

The teacher’s daughter, Manami, has been found floating in a swimming pool, and after a brief explanation she tells us at whose hands her daughter has died. And then, before dismissing the class, she reveals a terrible act of revenge on her part toward the two students who killed her child.

Through each subsequent chapter, confessions are revealed through the eyes of a classmate,  one of the murderer’s mothers, and even the murderers themselves.

The confessions are shocking and appalling, but the whole tone of the book is one of quiet resignation. It is almost as though each tragic event is a matter of fate, and must simply be lived out. It is, as my father has often said, like watching a slow motion horror film.

For perhaps worse than the confessions are the hearts of each character, for what they are willing to do instead of forgive. Or, even love.

JLC11I read this fascinating novel after reading the review on su[shu], and now I’m glad to know of another excellent Japanese writer for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Kanae Minato is a former home economics teacher and housewife who wrote Confessions, her first novel, between household chores. The book has sold more than three million copies in Japan, where it won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers, and The National Booksellers’ Award, and was adapted into an Oscar short-listed film directed by Tesuya Nakashima. (from back cover)

The Switch by Joseph Finder (“Surveillance is civility. You got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to fear.”)

IMG_4158I might have had trouble with the idea that an important political figure would leave her password on a Post-it note stuck to the outside of her laptop if I hadn’t watched Hillary mishandle her cell phone for over a year. But knowing of the idiotic things that senators (and such) can do with their technology, the premise of The Switch becomes not only fascinating, but credible.

While going through airport security in Los Angeles, Senator Susan Robbins’ laptop is accidentally picked up by Michael Tanner. It isn’t until he gets home to Boston that he discovers the error and realizes their computers have been switched. Then he sees the Post-it at the bottom of the laptop with the password. The more he tries to find out whose computer he has, the more he realizes that he is in possession of top secret files which the Senator and her aide will do anything to retrieve.

A series of ensuing incidents can only be interpreted as threats. There is an ever encroaching danger on Michael Tanner’s life which is only preserved because he is in possession of the MacBook Air which Robbins’ staff cannot find. His reporter friend has been presumed to have committed suicide; he gets a call that his coffee roasting company has suddenly caught fire in the middle of the night.

As he danger increases, so does an understanding of the underlying premises in this novel. Are we a society so caught up in technology that it has power over us rather than the other way around?

Worse still, is it possible for America to become  “a surveillance state, (and) eventually a dictatorship”?

“Forget privacy; what we all really want is convenience. We write private emails that our employer has the legal right to read, am I right? Every time you use your SpeedPass in the turnpike or swipe your debit card at Walmart or buy your meds at CVS, you’re being tracked. You got OnStar in your car, Waze  on your phone? You know they track where you went and how fast to got there, and they can sell your data to anyone they want? And if you don’t know all this, you’re not as smart as I thought. You really think you got privacy anymore? Every time you walk down the streets of the city your picture’s being taken by a surveillance camera. There’s automatic license-plate readers all over the place. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched online. We live our lives in public all the time, like it or not.”

This is an extremely satisfying thriller, well written and thought-provoking, making me question on this Independence Day just how independent we really are. Even in America.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (“I Had Allowed Too Many Things to Distract Me From My Central Priorities…”)

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It’s been very tiring and even now, here in this city, there’s so much pressure on me. The people here. Obviously they’re expecting a lot of me. I mean, it’s obvious…”

But, it isn’t obvious at all. At first. Ryder has come to an unnamed European city and is welcomed to the hotel by no one. They had all given up waiting for him, as he is so late, and he doesn’t even remember viewing the schedule for the series of events in which he will be expected to appear. It seems he is a pianist of some reknown, and that he will give a much anticipated performance. However, there is a great deal he needs to sort out first.

Everyone is asking something of him. The porter, Gustav, wishes him to meet with his estranged daughter, Sophie, to see what is wrong, but when Ryder goes to the cafe where she will be it is evident they know each other already. They even have no small degree of anger and frustration between themselves. How can this be? We realize that this is a dream (with many qualities of a nightmare), or an alternate reality, or at the very least some degree of amnesia on Ryder’s part. This mystical quality is exactly what I love most about Japanese literature.

I read on with trepidation, feeling the same sensations I do when I experience an unresolved dream sequence of my own. Do you recall a terrible struggle to get some place to which you can never arrive, or do something that you somehow can no longer do? I think of trying to run when my feet feel mired in clay. I think of dreams I’ve had appearing in my classroom for the first day, woefully ill prepared, or worse, undressed.

Each page holds some element like that. One small example is this: Ryder follows a little red car to lead him to the Karwinsky Gallery, but stops en route at his wife’s urging at a pastry shop where his son enjoys the doughnuts. There is a sense of urgency about him arriving at the reception in the gallery, he is already late, and yet here they are looking at delicacies through the glass case. When he arrives st the gallery he sees the ruins of his family’s car, from when he was a child, and he climbs in remembering the times he played in it.

Gradually, we learn of more and more distress in his life, from his unhappy marriage to his mother’s emotional instability, and we wonder how any of this will be resolved. Perhaps, the very journey through these pages is a working out of his life. Yet, Ryder’s life is not the only one full of unconsolations. Gustav, the porter with an indomitable will, weakens and lies inert backstage on a cot; Brodsky, the conductor, must face his alcoholism and longings for his ex-wife, Miss Collins; Miss Collins, a psychologist, loves Brodsky but is reluctant to become entangled in his issues yet again; Ryder and Sophie seem unable to arrive at a peaceful relationship for long, much to the distress of themselves and their son, Boris.

This is a beautiful novel, elegantly told, which speaks to the complications and heartache in life of which I am so fond of reading. It is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11, and one I highly recommend.

Japanese Literature Challenge 11: Welcome!

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I can’t help but think of Japanese literature especially in the month of June, for that is when summer begins, and that is when I have always hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge. Mel U and I have been chatting on Twitter this morning, deciding that our stack of Japanese books calls our attention. I am looking forward to seeing what he has planned. (Here is a list of suggested titles from the Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Here is a post from Mel’s blog, The Reading Life, on getting started.)

I have received some lovely books as gifts, and for review, which are as follows:

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Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko narrated and translated by a David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi

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The Gate by Natsume Soseki

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Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

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Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami

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The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

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The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi (because my classes have loved them and I bought an autographed set when the author came to visit)

And, Europa Editions has just published The Nakano Gift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami this June:

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So, I hope you will join us again this year, or perhaps for the first time. The challenge runs from June through January, “requiring” only one work (or more, if you choose) which has been originally written in Japanese. I have placed a challenge button on the bottom of my blog under which I will list the participants, as well as the titles and links to reviews you have read. I will also post updates every month highlighting the books we read. Please be sure to let me know in a comment below if you would like to participate, and/or when you have a book reviewed.

I’m looking forward to this time together!

Missing The Old Days of Blogging, Yet Embracing a New Term Defined by Old Friends

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I’m feeling a bit nostalgic today, especially after reading Arti‘s post on her ten year anniversary of blogging. The eleventh year of starting my blog came and went in May; I’m not even sure what day it was, exactly, as I’ve deleted my first posts in embarrassment of their poor quality.

I’ve gone from Blogger to WordPress, twice,  and I don’t care what anyone may say about the platform one uses, I feel strongly that one associates the most with those bloggers who are using the same platform.

I used to write more personal posts.

I used to read more popular fiction.

Now I have landed squarely in a world of translated literature which I adore, which enriches my life immeasurably, but…this morning I miss the old days. I miss silly old memes, posting about food, giving a few updates on my life.

Yet Linda, in all her wisdom, suggests that she and Arti (and I’m going to throw myself in with them) have landed in a place of “slow blogging”. There’s a lovely peace here. It means, in my interpretation, a lack of pressure to write posts according to a schedule. A lack of pressure to review what one feels one ought to review, be it film or text or thought. And, perhaps it means a lack of pressure to leave comments on every post you read. Sometimes just visiting, just landing for a moment at an old friend’s blog is enough.

Still, there will always be a special place for you in my heart, my old friends from 2006 and beyond. I’ll be around to visit you, and I’ll leave a few sentences so you know I’ve been there.

xo

Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare (Man Booker International Prize Winner 2005; Back When Prizes Were Given To The Good Books)

 

 

To say that I am discouraged because the recent Man Booker International Prize was awarded to A Horse Walks Into A Bar, is an understatement. As I stated on Twitter, perhaps the books written with satire (i.e. angry accusation) are the only ones the judges will choose lately. Consider Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the Man Booker last summer.

But, let’s move on to Chronicle In Stone, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2005, which is written in gorgeous prose. It is a book with incredible symbolism, subtle and sweet, whose elements of magical realism and personification make it more real to me than if I had lived in Albania in the 1940s myself.

“I thought about how the countless raindrops were gathering their rage down below, the old ones that had been languishing there so long getting together with the newcomers, the drops unleashed by tonight’s storm, plotting something evil. Too bad Papa has forgotten to move the pipe. The waters of the storm never should have been let into our well-behaved cistern to stir up rebellion.” 

What brilliant writing! What exquisite symbolism for the woe that Albania had faced, and would continue to face, in its violent existence as a country.

The difficulties in Albania’s history, of invasion by Greece, Italy and Germany, as well as civil unrest, are told through the perspective of a boy, an innocent boy who thinks it will be interesting to visit the slaughtering house in the city, and then upon seeing it covers his eyes and runs in horror. He loves the aerodrome, built in a field for the airplanes. He does not consider their purpose in war, and is baffled at his parents’ astonishment when he mourns their take-off.

The narrative is interspersed with sections entitled FRAGMENT OF A CHRONICLE, paragraphs which begin in the middle of a sentence, or leave off with the first two letters of the next word. They support the story with fact, being less imaginative than the young narrator’s point of view.

Early in the novel he finds a glass lens amidst his grandmother’s things, and when he holds it up to his eye things immediately sharpen. It is a perfect analogy for how his eyes will be opened as he matures in Albania, clearly seeing all the discord. The story begins slowly, evocative of youth and innocence, gradually becoming more real and therefore more horrific. For who can hide from the tragedies of war for long? Eventually our eyes are opened, and we must leave our innocence behind.

Truly, this is a magnificent novel.

In Which The Shadow Jury for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 Revisits Mathias Enard’s Compass and Arrives At A Decision

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“We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, toward what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion – look, Herr Gruber is walking his dog despite the drizzle, he’s wearing a green hat and his eternal raincoat; he avoids getting splashed by the cars by making ridiculous little leaps on the pavement: the mutt thinks he wants to play, so it leaps towards its master and gets a good clout the second it places its dirty paw on Herr Gruber’s trench coat, despite everything he manages to reach the road to cross, his silhouette is lengthened by the streetlights, a blackened pool in the midst of the sea of shadows of the tall trees ripped apart by the headlights along the Porzellangasse, and Herr Gruber seems to think twice about plunging into the Alsergrund night, as I do about leaving my contemplation of the drops of water, the thermometer, and the rhythym of the trams descending towards the Schottentor.”

It’s not exactly the kind of first sentence you could easily memorize, as people have done with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

But, it is indicative of the style of this book. Mathias Enard’s prose is mesmerizing, catching us up in a mood, covering us with atmosphere, and yet not wavering one instant from brilliance.

I thought this book might be too esoteric to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It wasn’t, for me, an easy read. Nor is there a specific plot on which I can center my thoughts. For those reasons, I chose The Unseen as my personal favorite for the Prize. In fact, The Unseen received four votes from the Shadow Jury panel.

However, another four votes went to Compass, resulting in some heavy consulting between Tony and Stu, who point out that Compass won by .1 of a point in the first round of voting. All of us concur; it is a worthy book to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017.

We shall see what the official judges say is the winner. They have a hard job of it, I think, deciding between the likes of Compass, Fever Dream, Judas and The Unseen. Each book stands out for its power and pertinence; I do not envy them their job. But, the Shadow Jury has declared our choice in Compass, and we eagerly await the official judges’ verdict.

 

(While one waits, might I point out that Spotify has a playlist for Compass? It is a lovely accompaniment to listen to while reading.)