4 Stars

Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

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Devils in Daylight

tanizaki_devils_in_daylight coverDevils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965) was first written in 1918, but not published in English until 2017. I read this 2017 New Directions edition translated by J. Keith Vincent. I had previously read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933) – his very important, but short, nonfiction essay. Devils in Daylight is really, from what I understand, representative of all things Tanizaki – even if it is one of his earlier pieces. It contains all the elements and themes that Tanizaki is usually associated with. The first key item to be mentioned is Tanizaki’s being impressed with all things modern and/or Western culture early in his life. This is probably one of the main reasons that this book is nearly an homage to, or a reworking of, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843).

I strongly recommend having familiarized oneself with Poe’s work before reading Devils in Daylight. There are so many parallels and also allusions and references that the reader would be shortchanging their reading experience by skipping the Poe work. Tanizaki’s work is highly influenced by The Gold Bug, though I would hesitate to say “based on.” The main character in Devils in Daylight, Sonomura, is nearly exactly the character in Poe’s work, William Legrand.

I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. He had with him many books, but rarely employed them. His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens… – The Gold Bug, E. A. Poe.

Tanizaki basically tells the reader that Poe’s work is necessary reading. Sonomura is talking to his only friend, the narrator:

He suddenly doubled over and cackled with laughter, whereupon he continued, with immense self-satisfaction, like some insufferable scholar showing off his vast learning.

“I take it you have not read Poe’s famous story ‘The Gold Bug.’ Anyone who had read it would recognize these symbols immediately.”

Sadly, I had only read two or three of Poe’s stories.  I had heard of one with the title “The Gold Bug,” but I had no idea what it was about. – pg. 15

So much for the proofs needed for reading The Gold BugDevils in Daylight begins by Sonomura telephoning Takahashi (the narrator) in mid-morning insisting that Takahashi come over to his house immediately. Takahashi is a writer and had spent a sleepless night with his pen in his hand trying to finish a serial novel for a magazine. Sonomura says:

“Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime. . . a homicide will be performed. I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well. . . . But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there.  And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me.  Doesn’t that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?” – pg. 9

Straightaway Tanizaki shows his hand and gives the reader all the usual themes that he is known for.  Sonomura expresses a desire to watch a crime – in secret. And then there is the juxtaposition between writing and watching and performing that rolls through the entire novel.

The novel is rather short – only 87 pages. I do not want to quote or comment too much about what the storyline actually contains.  This sort of noir-esque novel can be spoiled easily, although the crime and mystery is not really the strong part of this novel.  The excellence of this work comes from the finely-tuned writing that describes the narrator’s experiences. Using only as much as needed, Tanizaki carefully shows the reader the entirety of the story without burdening him with too many words, concepts, and descriptions.

Throughout the novel, Takahashi remains tired and sleepless. The few hours of sleep that he manages to get is punctuated by interruptions from Sonomura and images that disturb Takahashi’s psyche.  Takahashi’s tiredness provides this neat feeling to an already noir story. It also provides Takahashi a small excuse for not thinking/judging perfectly throughout.

The element of a femme-fatale is present in this story and the reader should appreciate her mysteriousness and her effectiveness. This is a theme that Tanizaki returns to quite often in his works. In this work, the femme-fatale may or may not be a geisha – which neatly juxtaposes the Western concept of femme-fatale with the Japanese-rooted geisha archetype.  More than simply using certain symbols and elements over and over, Tanizaki utilizes these elements to demonstrate the tension he feels and observes between Western and Eastern cultures. Hopefully reviewers will forgive this possible spoiler:  it seems that in this novel Tanizaki (as well as Sonomura and Takahashi) do not view geishas as capable of being femme-fatales – a point that is an intriguing insight into Tanizaki’s understanding of Japanese culture.

The ending might aggravate some readers – particularly ones who do not appreciate certain literary chess moves. Throughout the novel it is difficult to know whether one likes or hates Sonomura. By the end, I think readers will be even more suspicious of Sonomura (and by default, William Legrand) than anything. The title of the novel, for me, made no sense originally, but then at the end, I decided who the devils were and they are, indeed, also in daylight.

I recommend this to noir-fiction fans, readers of Japanese literature, and also Poe fanatics. I enjoyed this work and definitely will be reading more Tanizaki.  He has a reputation of writing some unsavory topics, so I will still attempt to be selective with what I read by him.

4 stars

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

Buying A Fishing Rod for My GThis collection of six stories, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, was published in English in 2004, but the stories within were written between 1983 and 1990.  Gao Xingjian (b. 1940) is a Nobel Prize Literature winner (2000).

I read this collection and enjoyed it. I also read a review (amateur) of this collection and reading that review sparked all kinds of thoughts in my head. Let me be upfront…. I did not agree with the review and I think the reviewer is [insert a kinder way of putting the words I am actually thinking here]. The reviewer reads a lot of pages, therefore has an opinion. But opinions also demonstrate the level of knowledge/proficiency toward a batch of knowledge. Sp there is the gulf between the academically-knowledgeable versus the “laymen’s opinion.”  In this particular case, the reviewer misses the mark and it is fairly clear why – they just do not know better. A case of ignorance. My complaint, though, comes in when their opinion is influencing others… In any case, I decided to use their review as a springboard for my thoughts.

Reviewer: “Above all else, I value storytelling. I think a story should be just that, a story. If you want to evoke feelings and emotions purely from language and writing, then to me that is poetry. So go write that! Short form poetry, long form poetry…whatever floats your boat. Poetry to me is pure human emotion expressed through language and I am very much a fan of it. And I absolutely believe that human emotion can be expressed through storytelling and fiction writing in general too…but for it to be considered a story, I need a plot. I need something to cohesively connect together the beautiful words and emotions they can evoke, rather than simply having beautifully phrased words together on a page.”

Gao Xingjing’s writing – in this collection in particular – is surreal and non-traditional.  These stories are non-linear and do not always contain the usual story elements. We have all seen that rudimentary novel 101 mountain of: Introduction – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Resolution.  I think I first saw that in middle school? The majority of pulp authors use this sort of schematic all the time. Let it be said, too, that some very good, very entertaining novels have been produced following that schematic!

However, as literature develops, this linear “mechanical” setup surely has been and will be tested. The boundaries of the concept of the novel are pushed and expanded.  Now, this writing – call it postmodern, call it avant-garde – is somewhat experimental. And readers who approach it with the expectation (demand?) that it conforms to their idea of novel-writing may not understand or enjoy it. Or, hopefully, they will enjoy the experience as a fresh and exciting new direction.

Or is it new?

Readers who proclaim to “value storytelling” and want “a story to be a story” should be queried for their thoughts on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Kafka’s The Castle, to name a few examples. And there are more than enough examples that can be cherry picked from the science fiction genre. Overwhelmingly, the first example that comes to mind is Philip K. Dick’s writing. Further, Cp. New Wave science fiction  So, a reader must not confuse a new experience for themselves as a new event qua reality.

Secondly, that reviewer’s definition of poetry makes me see red, as the saying goes. I do not know where this zeitgeist/stereotype/shared delusion came from, but it sickens me. Go ahead, stand in front of me and tell me “poetry is for emotions and feelings” and get yo’ throat punch. I have conferred with Alex Pope and Bill Blake and Yeats and Matty Arnold and Ted Adorno. I have double-checked with Seamus Heaney and T.S. Eliot. I ran it by Li Po and Kobayashi Issa. And we all agreed that all literature has the ability to evoke emotions, but poetry is not and ought not be some juvenile, frivolous, ridiculous outpouring of emotion. Some poetry may evoke feeling. But to relegate all poetry to some adolescent teenage girl’s hyperemotionalism and drivel makes all of us very angry people. Poetry is a not a synonym for some beatnik, artsy-fartsy, whimpering.

Here is what Gao Xingjian had to say when he accepted his Nobel Prize (The Case for Literature):

Poetic feeling does not derive simply from the expression of the emotions nevertheless unbridled egotism, a form of infantilism, is difficult to avoid in the early stages of writing. Also, there are numerous levels of emotional expression and to reach higher levels requires cold detachment. Poetry is concealed in the distanced gaze. Furthermore, if this gaze also examines the person of the author and overarches both the characters of the book and the author to become the author’s third eye, one that is as neutral as possible, the disasters and the refuse of the human world will all be worthy of scrutiny. Then as feelings of pain, hatred and abhorrence are aroused so too are feelings of concern and love for life.

Reviewer: “So I guess he [Gao Xingjing] knows A LOT more about writing than I could ever hope to as a humble reader. So while I am not unhappy that I read this collection I think it just has shown me that perhaps this is not an author to my taste. We have very different opinions about literature and I guess we will have to respectfully agree to disagree!”

Saying “respectfully agree to disagree” is sometimes a cop-out. And in this reviewer’s comments, it is also disingenuous, is it not? The bolded “a lot” and the “a humble reader” speak to the insincerity with which the respectful agreement is reached. But the key line here is that “we have very different opinions about literature.” This is the key the whole of approaching this particular work by Gao Xingjian.

The only word that comes to mind, over and over again, while I read these stories was “superimposed.”  In these stories, dreams are superimposed over imaginings over flashbacks. Layered simultaneous viewpoints are continually turning around and around the scenes of the “story.”  In the story The Accident, the comments made by the multitude of bystanders seem to layer upon each other. All of the relativism and subjectivity just keeps spinning and layering throughout the whole story. Beautifully, all of these superimposed thoughts are punctuated by graphic, shocking tidbits of the actual scene.  And then… as a sort of capstone superimposition…

“Of course a traffic accident can serve as an item for a newspaper.  And it can serve as the raw material for literature when it is supplemented by the imagination and written up as a moving narrative:  this would then be creation.  However, what is related here is simply the process of this traffic accident itself….” – -pg 59

Because, what may vex readers even more is the fluidity Gao Xingjian has as a narrator/character flowing in and out of his stories whenever he pleases. “Breaking the fourth wall” is another technique common to avant garde literature. And Xingjian manages it nicely. So, if the reader’s preferred literature keeps the narrator “over there” and the audience “over here,” elements like this will make this collection even more of a struggle.

The reviewer’s honesty about a difference of opinion on what constitutes literature is where I suggest some of this discussion pivots. I think reading works like this – if even that can be said – should cause the reader to evaluate their own opinions on literature. To that end, the reader should reassess and re-calibrate their opinions, updating where necessary and reaffirming where applicable.  That, indeed, is why Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize:

“for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama”

Not to say that I loved each piece in this collection and I will not praise them just because it purports to be postmodernist. The last piece, In An Instant, was not one I found enjoyable. I think it was too long.  I recognized the stream of consciousness efforts and the superimposition of dreams, writing process, and reality. Unfortunately, the piece seemed too aware of what it was doing to be a total success and the length was displeasing.

I would contrast this with the title story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, which contains similar superimposed imagery and views.  In this piece, though, the writing builds pounding angst in the reader. As I read it, I felt distress and sorrow alongside the main character. And I really liked the way it felt I was in that zone between sleep and awake where the television intrudes on my daydreams and the surrealism creeps in. Maradona is playing soccer and I am hunting tigers. I loved the depictions of Loulan Kingdom with the quicksand and the dried riverbeds.  The wordsmithing here is exquisite.

“An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensable criterion for literary works. Indeed, such judgements differ from person to person because the emotions are invariably that of different individuals. However such subjective aesthetic judgements do have universally recognised standards. The capacity for critical appreciation nurtured by literature allows the reader to also experience the poetic feeling and the beauty, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sorrow and the absurdity, and the humour and the irony that the author has infused into his work.”

That last quote (Nobel acceptance speech) really does reply to myself and the Reviewer. Reader emotion is necessary for literature, says Gao Xingjian.  And however much we are affected by and how effectual a work is definitely is rated on a subjective scale.  So, let us not banish reference to emotions in any form of literature. However, there are recognized standards that seem to operate as a baseline for the wise, experienced reader. I totally agree with Gao Xingjian. And I might even present this whole segment from his speech as a vital “definitional” basis for literary studies. That, too, is why he won the Nobel Prize because he does know A LOT more about literature than I do.

4 stars

For the Reviewer’s review:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1736144516

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat’s Grave

ten niths dreamingThis is the second work by Natsume Soseki that I have read.  I read the Dover Publications edition, which collects both Ten Nights of Dreams and the small piece The Cat’s Grave together even though they are unrelated. The Ten Nights of Dreams were serialized in July and August of 1908.  They are titled “First Night,” and “Second Night” and so on. It would be incorrect to call these pieces short stories since most of them are just barely two pages. There is not a lot room for development or background – just a few paragraphs that glimpse some aspect of human experience that Soseki found of interest.

The group of writings is called Ten Nights Dreaming (or similar translation) so, one expects the contents to be dream-like. However, if the book was titled anything else, maybe “Ten Musings” or “Ten Moments” it would work just as well.  Readers accept these pieces as “dreams” because that is what they are titled. Most of the dreams are melancholic or disturbing. But as dreams/dreamlike, one naturally finds the surrealism disturbing. In some of the pieces the surrealism is subtle and quiet (e.g. The Ninth Night) and in others it is brutal (e.g. The Tenth Night).

In all of the stories, I think the key element within them is their twist on the passage of time. Time, and how we experience it, plays a rôle in each of the works. In fact, as I began reading through these, I noticed this reference to time right away and was looking for it in each story.

Readers and commentators have frequently interpreted these pieces in a metaphorical sense.  There are plenty of discussions that suggest certain dreams are metaphors for Soseki’s childhood, for Japan as a nation, for Soseki’s comments on Zen or Taoism, etc.  I think some can be read in this way, certainly, but to take a strict hardline position on these interpretations would be foolish.

My favorites were nights Five, Six, and Seven.  My least favorite was Ten. Now, the Eighth Night left me really not sure what to think. I wanted to love this story – in other words, I wanted it to knock the ball out of the park. This one had the potential to tie all of the pieces together and be ridiculously profound and haunting. The fact that it failed to live up to my (totally uncalled for) expectations really annoyed me. But that error should lie mainly with me; shame on me for putting undue expectations on a foreign language story written over a hundred years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m unsatisfied. I want to turn the Eighth Night into what I wanted it to be. So, do I even attempt a rewrite of it? What would it look like/sound like? Should an imitation/response be attempted or would that undo the whole Ten Nights?  I cannot help but keep thinking, long after I read this book, how this one story could have been so great.

Because the stories are so short, it is harmful to readers who have never read them for me to discuss any structure or details whatsoever of them.  However, I can explain that the reasons I liked the three stories mentioned above is because they contained a strong wit. In the Fifth Night, there is a heart-crushing wit. In the Sixth Night, we find a wry and agile wit.  In the Seventh Night, the wit changes more into wisdom and advice. All of these stories have application to contemporary readers. They are very accessible, unlike, perhaps, Tenth Night.  It is this keen intelligence hidden in these spare stories that really demonstrates Soseki as a sharp-minded writer.

This is a short read, though there is no need to race through it. The dreams are an excellent concept, which Soseki more or less succeeds in presenting. I had a hard time considering the work as a whole and found it much easier to look at the parts separately. Readers who enjoy the a light-touch of the surreal would probably enjoy this. After all, its such a small book, it would not be a heavy lift for anyone.

4 stars

The Sound of Waves

The Sound of WavesThe Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) was first published in 1954 in Japanese. If you do not know who Mishima was, then you are missing out on one of the scandalous stories of the century. The translator for the novel is Meredith Weatherby (1914 – 1997) – yet another scandalous character. Both Mishima and Weatherby ran in some of the same circles as Tamotsu Yato (1928 – 1973) and Donald Richie (1924 – 2013), who were involved in film, art, and photography. Much of the work and interests of these people crossed paths repeatedly; especially because much of their production was classified in the homoerotic genre. For example, Tamtosu Yato’s photography books of young Japanese males contained introductions written by Mishima and/or were dedicated to Mishima. Weatherby was an actor (Cp. Tora! Tora! Tora) and publisher (hence, translating and publishing Mishima’s writing), and also Tamtosu Yato’s lover. Needless to say, intentional or not, engagement with one of these folks usually contains a connection to one of the others.

All of that being said, I read the Vintage International edition translated by Weatherby. I feel that the closeness of those folks [sic] probably guarantees that the translation was faithful to the original Japanese. However, I also think that proximity causes bias, and I would definitely purchase and read another translation if one were to be published.

A last note on the book itself – there are ink drawings at each of the chapter beginnings. These were done by Yoshinori Kinoshita and they are perfect. They complement the story perfectly and I found myself pausing in my reading to look at these illustrations.

Anyway, The Sound of Waves is one of Mishima’s earlier novels. I read it because it is the earliest novel of his that I own. I have owned it for decades, but there are so many books that are on shelves waiting to be read. I think this is a very good novel for a number of reasons, although I can also agree with most of the criticisms of the novel that I have read.

The novel takes place, mainly, on Uta-jima, a small island. It is important to note that in the first sentence this is translated as Song Island. The greatest element of this novel, in my opinion, is the setting. Being titled The Sound of Waves and setting the story on Song Island, should cause the reader to immediately sense the carefully selected wording that the author chooses. The word selection that develops each and every scene is deliberate and not frivolous.  The nice thing that comes from this deliberateness is a vivid and robust description of Uta-jima that does not come from a deluge of adjectival verbosity, but rather from spare, precise, nearly-poetic writing. The setting is so realistic and strong that it is almost another character in the novel.

At 183 pages, this could easily be an afternoon read. However, it does not seem like the sort of novel one should read-through with haste. Uta-jima is not an island in which the residents live with haste. Home to fourteen-hundred residents, the novel spins around the connections that exist between a handful of characters. We meet the main character, Shinji, in the evening of a day like most days – a day occupied by the main industry of the residents of the island, fishing.  Shinji, who is eighteen years old, is bringing a halibut caught that day to the lighthouse, for the lighthouse-keeper. En route to the lighthouse, Shinji comes upon a young lady whom he has never seen before, the surprise of this confuses him and he silently tries to identify her. This whole event is but a moment in the twilight, but it sets up the entire rest of the novel.

In retrospect, is this novel a story of love-at-first-sight? Most descriptions of this novel call it a “coming-of-age” novel.  That is a categorization that really vexes me. I usually avoid novels that are classified that way because I find it absurd and ridiculous. I guess in a way, Shinji is at a turning point in his life. He has been supporting his family for awhile and he is old enough to consider a career/marriage/etc.  However, even though this focus is on Shinji, I feel like Mishima is not writing about how Shinji develops into a young man and the decisions that occur. In fact, there is little or no “character growth” at all when it comes to Shinji. The stolid young man we meet on page 6, is nearly the exact same as the young man we depart on page 183. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest the novel is a demonstration of how success comes to such a solid, unchanging, and strong character. An ode, perhaps, to the rigid and dependable ideal of the samurai that Mishima was always so enamored.

Still, on the surface, its a love story. Shinju and Hatsue forever – carve it in a tree trunk or something. They are good kids, and the reader is going to root for them. Because the story, on the surface, is fairly straightforward and unsurprising. This is another criticism that I read. Some readers felt that the story was too basic and not nuanced; I guess readers did not feel challenged. Well, the story is one that, in one form or another, we are all familiar with in novels and film and in real life. Two kids fall in love, this affects the others who are connected in some way to the situation. The others react in various ways, which causes further effects that spread out like the Doppler system. In the end, everyone has to play a rôle and adjust to the events.

Frankly, I think that because it is such a common storyline that the novel is actually worthy of more praise. Such a well-known and obvious storyline is elevated by such good writing and style that this begs the question of whether this is not what, precisely, art is supposed to do. In other words, taking the common in life and making it elevated or highlighting the spiritual, the magical, the extraordinary within the everydayness.

Finally, Mishima’s passion for physicality is apparent with every deliberate scene. The materiality and the tangibility of character’s bodies, the wind and the waves, the temperatures and the scenery, all are very important to Mishima. For example, readers can feel the rain, they can feel the hole in the sweater, and they can see the too-bright sunshine on blinding sand. Now, not all of readership wants to focus on what Mishima focuses on, but for a short novel, it is poignant and powerful. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The very subtle usage of elements of Shinto are also noteworthy. In delicate and significant scenes, the faith of Shinji is like all other characteristics displayed by him – solid and diligent. I liked these little moments of religion on this little island.

Overall, this is a novel with a lot to offer readers who are careful not to heap expectations on it before they start reading. It contains a somewhat timelessly familiar story within a careful arrangement of setting and sound. Even if readers do not necessarily like the novel, I suspect it is still a novel they will be glad to have read.

4 stars

The Three-Cornered World

Three Cornered CoverNatusme Soseki’s (1867 – 1916) The Three-Cornered World was published in 1906.  The title in Japanese is Kusamakura, but I read the 1965 translation into English. It is the first that I have read by this author.

This is one of those novels that I suspect readers who write reviews have mixed feelings about.  It is an excellent novel – but it is also a rather short novel. The novel is so wonderful and thoughtful that it could easily evoke a review that is thrice as long as the novel itself.

Some readers have likened it to a haiku writing. As if the novel’s simplicity is deceptive because it contains such a wealth of insight. I do not think that is the best comparison, but I agree that this is just one of those few novels that it is just better to read for yourself and not bother with reading interpretations.

This is a rare novel. Not every reader will enjoy this novel. Many readers seem to me to be totally enthralled with action, hurrying, and loudness. And part and parcel of such action/loudness is usually severe depravity.  This novel is unrushed. It is aesthetic and honest. The honesty and the lack of loudness is what separate this novel from so many other ones. Usually, when someone calls a text “honest,” I think it is assumed that it is grossly confessional and obscenely open. The Three Cornered World is very honest, but do not expect some ribald, grotesque exposé.

For example, the author bluntly shares that he knows nothing of Zen. That’s not a literal truth, but it tells us that this is not some manifesto to artificially praise “true Japanese culture/religion.”  Of course, this must be contrasted with several points in which the author sharply expresses his negative feelings towards modern civilization and urban life.  The novel was published in 1906, but its setting is contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War.  Further, the development of Industry in Japan (particularly with railroads and coal) clearly affected the author’s vision of urban versus rural. So there is a current running through this novel that keeps the reader aware that the rush toward modern (and Western) industry is not entirely happy for the author.

The narrative of this novel is by an artist. He tells us he is a painter, but he writes much poetry and does a few sketches. His artist’s eye is keen and he sees colors and people and the world on an expert-level. However, he is unable to actively use his color-box.

The artist has taken a trip in late winter/early spring to develop his own art. He is doing this by detaching himself from society, from the caustic urban centers. And on this trip to a hot springs in the rural landscape, he must remain detached from all things – as if looking at scenes and people as if they were in a picture or even on stage.

Settings and scenes matter in this book, because the narrator is an artist and he is painting the narration. However, if you do not wish to deconstruct the setting and the language and everything else – the novel is still excellent. This is very nice because its one thing to say: “this novel is good, but you have to be intelligent and deconstruct and analyze every item in it” and its quite another to say: “this novel is so good; it is wonderful if you analyze it and it is wonderful if you lazily just let it carry you along to enjoy its rhythm.” 

The setting/scenes, though narrated by an artist, are not atmospheric or esoteric. The artist who is narrating is exceedingly down-to-earth and empirical.  I feel this is somewhat opposite of the stereotypical Western conception of an artist.

I find a lot of contemporary/modern Japanese writing to be morbid or gruesome. They are too raw and unpalatable for me, usually. Now, I know this particular novel is a bit older than “contemporary,” but I found it refreshing and delightful that it was not written how I have found many Japanese novels. I think the author is often referred to as Japan’s first modern novelist – to heck with that, I want to call him Japan’s last novelist, too.

The novel is sometimes sad and sometimes joyous. And it sometimes contains the slightest eeriness. But it also ends with a bittersweet perfect imperfection that the best Japanese artists have mastered. There are very stark comments from the narrator about Tokyo. But there are also humorous and amusing moments that display a very, very honest wit. Overall, that is the word I want to use to describe this novel:  honest.

4 stars

Ender’s Game

Enders GameEnder’s Game is a very famous science fiction novel from the 1980s.  I could have read it in any number of decades – the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and yet I only just read it this month in 2017.  Please do not think that I was avoiding it for any reason. I was not. I, quite simply, never had the opportunity or occasion to read the novel.  There are a lot of novels that fall into this category with me (yeah, Lord of the Flies is still unread), but Ender’s Game was a standout omission because it always seemed like *everyone* had read it multiple times.

And now that I have read this novel, I feel it is vaguely moot to bother writing a review of it. I mean, what can I really add or mention that has not been already said, alluded to, or complained about? It seems everyone, except maybe infants in underdeveloped countries, has already formed their opinion of this novel.  And what hubris to think anyone has interest in my opinion….

Keeping that in mind, I did not love this book, nor did I hate it. I feel like a heavy majority of readers either love it or hate it, but most do not fall into the category of simply enjoying it as a decent science fiction novel.  The Introduction (written by the author in 1991) is a bit that I found very obnoxious. However, I read it after I read the novel, so that did not sway any of my sentiment.

I believe that this novel will return to the reader what he brings to it. By this I mean that however the reader feels about the world – his own experiences, judgments, ethics, feelings – will be cemented or enforced by this novel.  In other words, this is not one that will change people’s opinions; you know, opening hearts and minds, or whatever. So, if a reader feels strongly pro/anti-military, his reading will reassert those positions. And what a reader prioritizes in their worldview, is what the reader will highlight and evaluate most in their reading of this novel. Not to say that that this is the most philosophical or intellectual novel ever written. At heart, it is the story of Earth military versus Alien military.

Considering that I believe the above, viz. that the reader will focus on things in the book that are focused on in his own life, I am not sure how to write this review without at least some personal revelatory comment.  Is Ender a tragic character? Yes, he is and, perhaps what is worse for him, he knows that he is. As are, more or less, the other selected student-soldiers.  I would not have been opposed to the techniques in Battle School. Nor was I shocked at the mentalities and realities of Ender’s early schooling. The pressure that Ender and his mates are put under did not bother me. However, the part that made me feel empathy for Ender was during Battle School and Command School they (from Ender’s perspective) kept changing the rules on him. I hated this on Ender’s behalf. I did not hate the extreme pressure, nor the fierce competition, the intense training. But I did feel badly for Ender when it seemed all his work was for naught because the rules suddenly would change, seemingly spoiling his efforts.

Granted, as you read, you learn that even these harsh “rule changes” are part of the process of training Ender.  But even knowing this, it is the one thing that really made me feel any empathy.

The brother/sister dynamic was weird – much weirder and odder than I expected. In fact, that is the segment of the book that is disturbing, not anything with Ender. I cringed any time the story turned to those two. It is interesting to a point, I guess, but I cannot say that I cared much about that part of the storyline. I know it shows this overarching schema in which the author juxtaposes Ender and with his siblings (all of them genetically enhanced). Card even throws in there a nice metaphor about a coin. It works, but I did not care.

Finally, the ending was too odd for me to enjoy and it made me consider giving the novel three stars and not four. The weird Bugger-mind-ansible-cocoon thing. All of it. All of it after the Earth Civil Wars was just throw away, in my opinion. I do see how it neatly wraps up some questions about the computer game Ender plays and I do see how it might generate sympathy from readers.  The Buggers are a misunderstood situation, condemned because of their mode of communication, and Ender is maybe also their beginner. For me, though, the book ends when the “final exam” ends.

So do I read on in the series? I think Ender’s Game is perfectly standalone. But Card knew he had a golden franchise. And, I cannot say I am uninterested in the storyline. I will probably read book two, at least. Officially, between you and me this is a 3.75 star rating.

4 stars