BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Deciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow

Deciduous QweenDeciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of [mostly] free verse and prose poems touches on nature, sexuality, and the loss of a mother. The poems are evocative and sometimes haunting, and they offer insight into experiences as specific as the author’s life as a gay man in Houston’s bayous and as universal as the loss of a loved one.

The collection is arranged into five parts. Each part continues the eponymous poem, “Deciduous Qween,” such that that poem acts as a connective tissue for the collection. The various parts each have their own unique feel.

As mentioned, sexuality is a major feature of this collection, and so readers sensitive to the subject should be forewarned. The fourth part is where the poems become explicit. In terms of graphicness, I’d put them in line with the more risqué works of Allen Ginsberg.

I found these poems to be poignant, heartfelt, and readable. I’d recommend the collection for poetry readers, particularly those who aren’t sensitive to matters of sex and sexuality.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed. by Jay Rubin

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories by Jay Rubin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains 35 short stories by many of the most prominent Japanese writers (at least among authors whose works are translated into English,) including: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Haruki Murakami (who contributes the book’s Introduction as well as two stories.)

The stories are arranged into seven sections that are apropos for modern Japanese literature: “Japan and the West” (3 stories,) “Loyal Warriors” (2 stories,) “Men and Women” (6 stories,) “Nature and Memory” (5 stories), “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” (5 stories,) “Dread” (3 stories,) and “Disasters, Natural and Man-made” (11 stories.) This organization scheme, which might seem random applied to most literature, offers some insight into the Japanese mind and experience.

“Japan and the West” reflects a Japan in the vanguard among non-Western nations entering into developed nation status. For a time, Japan sat in the unique situation of being the only rich nation that wasn’t majority Caucasian, and the uneasy balancing act that many Japanese felt is reflected in these three stories. “Loyal Warriors” reflects the long shadow of the feudal samurai era, and – in particular – the custom of ritual suicide. It’s true that “Men and Women” has a certain universality to it, though the individual stories speak to the Japanese experience and history. The section entitled “Nature and Memory” is really more about the latter than the former, and the stories all reflect a concern about remembering, forgetting, and the imperfection of memory. “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” explores the modern corporate existence. “Dread” are the horror stories, a genre that has a lengthy history in Japan. “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” reflects Japan’s experience with many devastating earthquakes and two atomic bombs.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not describe or comment upon all the stories. Instead, I’ll pick out a few that I found particularly moving. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many gems among the others. But my intention is merely to give the reader a taste of what is in this volume.

– “The Story of Tomode and Matsunaga” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: A writer receives a letter from a woman whose husband has a history of pulling extended disappearing acts. She asks for the writer’s help because she believes he may know her husband. The writer makes a connection to an acquaintance he has frequently socialized with in bars. The writer notices the man’s appearance in town seems to line up with the dates the woman gave for her husband’s disappearances. It might seem like a mystery solved, but the two men look nothing alike.

– “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima: A junior military officer comes home and tells his wife that he has been put in the untenable position of having to arrest his comrades. Deciding that there is no honorable path, he decides to commit seppuku (ritual suicide,) and – given societal norms – this means his wife, too, will be expected to end her own life.

– “Smile of the Mountain Witch” by Ohba Minako: A mythical mountain witch is transposed into a modern urban setting.

– “Peaches” by Abe Akira: A man revisits a memory from his youth involving his mother and a cart of peaches, realizing that events couldn’t have happened as he remembers, he reconstructs events as he re-imagines his story.

– “Mr. English” by Keita Genji: We meet an office worker who seems like a bit of a jerk, but as we get to know his story, he is humanized.

– “Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A prima donna artist painting a hellish artwork for his Lord insists that he must have seen scenes to accurately depict them, and thus he is drawn into the hellishness of his work.

– “Filling Up with Sugar” by Suwanishi Yuten: A woman’s mother has a rare and incurable disease in which the body slowly turns into sugar.

– “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Ota Yoko: As the title suggests, this is a story of the devastation of Hiroshima by atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War.

– “Weather-Watching Hill” Saeki Kazumi: This description of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reads a bit like a journalistic account.

– “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya: This is a chilling tale of a mother who uses the release of radiation as a result of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant melt-down as a pretext for murdering her baby in a way that won’t look like murder. It’s so wrong in so many ways, but extremely evocative.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. The stories are great, and I would highly recommend it for readers of short fiction – particularly if one enjoys the cultural insight that comes from reading translated literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell And The ButterflyThe Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If it had been written under ordinary circumstances, this would be a fine book. It offers some beautiful imagery and language, and – more importantly — is heartfelt, touching, and nakedly honest. But it wasn’t written under ordinary circumstances, which makes it an astounding book. Its author suffered a severe stroke that, after leaving him in a coma for a time, resulted in a condition called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which resulted in his inability to move any part of his body save his left eyelid. It was by moving this eyelid that he painstakingly dictated the book. As one might suspect, the book is concise and sparse in tone, but it read like that could have been a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity.

The title becomes less nebulous once you know it’s about a man with Locked-In Syndrome. The diving-bell represents his body, a clunky cumbersome entity that limited his perception to narrow slices of the world. The butterfly is his mind, which remained free to go anywhere and create anything he could imagine. Some of what I found most fascinating about the book was the author’s discussion of the mental world he created. Though the book deals even more extensively with how the condition changed his interaction with people. Loneliness is a central theme. Because of the severity of the condition, he is restricted to a special facility and can only see his children on weekends. While his children are the most important to him, he also reflects back to people that he worked with in his role as a magazine editor or who he counted as friends.

The organization is not strictly chronological, and I felt this was beneficial. By presenting flashbacks to before he was injured and, eventually, to when he had his stroke, he broke up the tragedy to keep it from becoming overwhelming.

I found the book to be extremely powerful. I would highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.

Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.

Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.

The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.

From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco

How to Love a CountryHow to Love a Country by Richard Blanco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out March 26, 2019

 

This book takes one on a roller coaster ride of insight into the author’s relationship with his country as an immigrant from a family of Cuban exiles. At times the tone is hopeful and at other times seething or even vitriolic. Unlike many of the angry works of political verse of late, this one sometimes reflects that most beautiful of pragmatic truths: one can’t truly love anything if one can’t embrace it imperfections and all. As it happens, this wide sway in tone is partly the result of these poems being collected from various sources. Having a poem commissioned by the State Department in a collection with a poem that was a response to a news story about someone being gunned down is bound to result in some variation in feel. Still, I think the poems were well-organized to reflect the various trials and glories one goes through in a relationship. The angry verse is well-positioned toward the middle, and about the time I was over the rage, the storm clouds began to break up and a more beautiful scene unfolded.

The poems are prose poetry or free verse. There is beautiful use of language interspersed with plain-spoken verse.

I’d recommend this collection for poetry readers. I don’t suspect it will have a particularly wide audience. A jingoistic reader who picks it up for its title will drop it like a hot rock long before getting to the aforementioned angry plateau. Which is not to say that there isn’t something to be gained from reading this book even if it doesn’t comport with one’s own views. The issue of division along fault lines of political-philosophy is a major theme of this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This quirky novel is about a girl struggling to stay out of the limelight in a place where a socio-cultural schism leads to the most mundane happenings becoming a source of intrigue and speculation. The reader is never told that the aforementioned location is Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, between reading the author’s bio-blurb and having been around for the news stories from that city a few decades ago, it’s easy enough to draw that conclusion.

There’s a lot readers aren’t told in this novel. For example, we don’t learn anyone’s proper name. The characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist (e.g. “ma,” “may-be boyfriend,” or “wee sisters”), his or her profession (e.g. “real milkman” the qualifier distinguishing said individual from the titular character [who is not nor never was – to anyone’s knowledge – an actual milkman],) or a peculiarity of said character (e.g. “tablets girl” or “nuclear boy.”) There is actually a character named “Somebody McSomebody.” One can only speculate about the author’s choice to not name the characters. My guess is that it reflects an attempt to emphasize a craving for anonymity and an avoidance of being free with detail.

The titular Milkman is a mysterious militant who takes an interest in the lead character. While the narrating lead tells us that she is definitely not interested in the Milkman, the community soon concludes that she is in a covert relationship with him. While the lead wants to keep her business to herself, there are a couple of factors working against her. First, one of her idiosyncratic behaviors – which one gets the impression she engages in to get a break from people – is walking home while reading, rather than taking the bus. This draws unwanted attention, perhaps ironically as one presumes she does this thinking that she’s slipping out of the public awareness. A second factor is that, while we are never told as much, one gets the impression that the lead is a beautiful young woman. Of course, the biggest factor is that everybody is watching everybody else like a hawk, attempting to find faults in what I call tribe signaling behavior (those actions – e.g. FaceBook posts – that serve to tell people who one is part of some group A and definitely not part of that vile group B.) For example, may-be boyfriend wins a Bentley turbo-charger and there is furor over the fact that said product usually has a little British flag on them, putting may-be boyfriend in a traitorous camp.

In one sense, this is a book about life in a place that has a specific socio-cultural fault line, specifically Northern Ireland. However, there is a lot in the story that is relevant to readers today, as we see sharp politico-cultural divides forming in many places in the world – certainly, for example, in the US. The book will make one sympathetic to the woes of those trying to opt out of tribe-signaling in a community in which to be unaffiliated is to be relegated to the lowest status imaginable.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Its humorous, albeit with the dark undertone of conflict ever-present. It’s readable and the reader will find themselves carrying about the plight of the lead.

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