BOOK REVIEW: A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of poetry, short fiction, essays, and other short writings (that fit into two or more of the previously mentioned categories) – all chosen by Borges as the works he wanted his literary legacy to be based upon. For those unacquainted, Borges was a brilliant Argentine author whose writings were philosophical, mystical, erudite, and brief. He was the perfect writer for those of us who love ideas and contemplation of the world, but who also suffer deficits of attention. He wrote in bitesize pieces, but those bites couldn’t have been more intensely flavored with ideas and evocative and provocative commentary. His subject matter includes lofty topics such as the lives of Homer, Shakespeare, and Buddha, but also crude, visceral experiences such as a knife fight.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Borges’ work, and couldn’t resist reading his choices for his personal best – even having recently read many of the pieces – particularly the better-known ones. It’s worth noting that Borges’ choices include a great many of the works that others have called his best work, e.g. “The Aleph,” “Borges and I,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829 – 1874,)” “The Zahir,” “The Maker,” “Averröes’ Search,” “The Golem,” “Circular Ruins,” etc. The biggest surprise of the collection was that it included much more poetry than I expected. The works I’ve read previously contained minimal poetry, but I’d say this collection is about half poems.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s thought-provoking and magnificently written / translated. I would normally say that I’m not qualified to comment on the skill of translation other than to say the book read well, but the two translators wrote an epilogue that I think showed they could channel the mystery and creativity of Jorge Luis Borges.


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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (Trans. Srinath Perur)

Ghachar GhocharGhachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella, translated from Kannada, shows the Indian family as both a gordian knot that can be the source of great strength through unity and as an unruly tangle that can neither be loosed nor made neat. It’s character-driven literary fiction that focuses on a young man in a family that becomes nouveau-riche. He is aimless and dependent upon the income of his family’s business, and that is fine and natural with him until his newly-wedded wife discovers he’s more man-child than the business executive his calling cards proclaim him to be.

I found the book to be both insightful and brilliantly crafted. As mentioned, it’s more about the family dynamic than a story, but it’s humorous, contemplative, and shows the psychology of family drama nicely.

I’d highly recommend this novella for readers of literary fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - With Original Illustrations)The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The dozen stories in this collection make up the final book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s not the most beloved of the Holmes’ books, but Doyle did take some bold diversions from the usual Sherlock formula (probably in an attempt to maintain his own interest in the character.) Some of the experiments are regarded as fails. I’ll discuss the anomalous tales, with the understanding that most of the other stories follow the recipe.


In “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” Doyle ventures into what some have called bad sci-fi with a tale in the vein of “Island of Doctor Moreau.” While the farfetched nature of the story stands in contrast to the usual enlightened rationality of Holmes, to be fair, it’s hard to fault anyone living through the early decades of the twentieth century for imagining some outlandish possibilities — given the wild scientific and technological advances being seen. In this collection we see microscopes and other disruptive technologies.


In “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” Holmes, himself, takes up narration (i.e. Doctor Watson’s job.) In my view, besides Holmes’s occasional chiding of Watson and his writings, there didn’t seem to be as great a distinction in voice as Doyle might have hoped to achieve.


“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” is also narrated by Holmes, but is also anomalous for the nature of its solution. While a murder investigation is solved using Holmes’s arcane knowledge, it might leave many readers feeling that it was an anticlimactic variation on the formula.


A couple stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and – to a lesser extent – “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” skip the usual necessity of Holmes solving the case and taking part in the explanation of discoveries, and – instead – the solution is presented entirely by individuals involved in the mystery. This harms the protagonist’s agency.


Despite the lack of love this collection receives, generally, it does still present some interesting cases and I credit Doyle both for taking chances and for showing an evolution of Holmes and his world.


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BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle

His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - with original illustrations)His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story collection is the penultimate book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. One sees a shift into the modernity of the twentieth century in the seven collected stories. In particular, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” is about the theft of plans for a submarine, and the final story, the titular finale, “His Last Bow” takes Holmes out of the world of crime and law enforcement and into the realm of espionage. Of course, the Sherlock Holmes books have always taken advantage of both the science of the day as well as offering glimpses into the cultures and peculiarities of far away lands. This blending of the cutting edge with exoticism is part of what gave these books a mystique that set them apart from other detective fiction, and is also partly why they have aged so well.


Two recurring plot devices in the book are poisonous substances and – ever popular with Doyle – the criminal secret society. Poisons play a central role in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective.” The secret society angle plays into the only two stories of the collection that are two-parters: “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle.” “His Last Bow” isn’t the only departure from the standard Sherlock fare. Given an attempt to kill off Holmes as well as the unsuccessful finality of this book’s title, it seems like Doyle was acutely concerned by the capacity for these stories to become overplayed. Therefore, he seemed to experiment a little with story. Unfortunately for him, the author did too good of a job at creating one of the most intriguing characters ever, and so demand for the stories remained unabated – regardless of the fact that the stories tend to become a bit more predictable as one reads through them in their entirety.


I felt this collection provided a nice mix of atypical and classic Sherlock. It’s definitely worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play takes place over a period of time, for want of a better measure, straddling the first two [of six] marriages of Henry VIII. It doesn’t reach the ill-fated end of Anne Boleyn, but rather finishes with the baptism of the girl child she birthed [Elizabeth, who will later be Queen.] [Of course, the failure to produce a male child was the downfall of Katherine of Aragon’s Queenship, so the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t bode well.]

In as much as a history has a theme, this one would be the conflict between the aristocracy and the clergy. This is first, and most extensively, seen through the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who wins the favor of the King in the Cardinal’s conflict with the Duke of Buckingham, but later Wolsey gets ousted after an aristocratic cabal diverts the Cardinal’s mail to the King. Henry discovers that Wolsey has recommended denial of an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, despite the fact that Wolsey was telling the King to his face that the marriage’s end had his endorsement. Later, we find aristocrats (the King’s Council) taking on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, but Henry sides with the Archbishop as he once had with Wolsey.

The play’s major events are the execution of Buckingham, the divorce from Katherine, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of Elizabeth.

This isn’t the most compelling of the Shakespearean histories, but it does have its intrigues. No doubt it would be a bolder play in the absence of the authoritarian nature of monarchy, but it’s still worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”


I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

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