Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

First published in 1977 in Portuguese

I totally forgot that August was WITmonth or Women in Translation Month, but I did actually read the right books. I read Lispector’s Hour of the Star, and I just finished Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Clarice Lispector seems to be the go-to author for women in translation books. This is my first time reading her work. Unfortunately I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. It made me think whether my problem is with works translated from Portuguese in general. Perhaps the language just does not translate very well to English. The last book I read translated from Portuguese was The Book of Chameleons, and despite the fact that the two authors come from different countries (Agualusa is from Angola, Lispector from Brazil), and of different gender (while we’re talking about it), I had quite similar problems with the 2 books.

In Hour of the Star Lispector uses a narrator to tell the story of Macabéa, a simple, poor girl. Some readers mentioned their problem with the passive character or the simplistic story, but for me it’s not that. I didn’t like the writing style. It is very odd sounding, punctuated with nonsense words and sentences, and words in parentheses (example: “(explosion)” which is sprinkled liberally, and I didn’t get the purpose of). I did not enjoy reading it, and I was very much aware that I was reading a translated book.

The translator’s notes of my Penguin edition gives a bit of an insight into the challenges of translating the book. According to him, it doesn’t only sound odd in English, but also in Portuguese!

“Because no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original. … Clarice Lispector’s weird choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in the conventional grammar produces sentences – often fragments of sentences – that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.” – Translator’s Afterword

Benjamin Moser goes on for 3 pages about how difficult it is to translate Lispector’s books, while arguing at the same time that it does not mean they’re untranslatable – as “they are not littered with regionalisms, slang, puns, or inside jokes. Her meaning is almost always perfectly clear.” While I appreciate the challenges, I’m not sure if it does much for me as a reader.

The Book of Chameleons also uses a narrator to tell a story (a gecko in its case). I kept wondering while reading Hour of the Star, whether the narrator in the book was also some sort of fly-on-the-wall animal or spirit. We know the gender is male, because he said that this story needs to be told by a male writer. “.. a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.” – p6. (Is that sarcasm by Lispector?) I just found him annoying, and it gives an extra layer that distanced me even further from the real character of the story. I failed to connect emotionally with any aspect of the book.

Saying that I’d probably try another book by Lispector, just because they’re short. Biblibio seems to have the same reaction with me in regards to Hour of the Star, but she ended up liking her short stories. I can see why. I don’t feel the experimental writing style sustainable for a long period of time – I was already struggling with 70ish pages. Longer than that would’ve been frustrating. It might work better for short stories. Tony also recently posted about The Passion According to G.H., the book that I initially thought of reading next, but it sounds quite similar in style with Hour of the Star, confirming I should jump onto her short stories next instead.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

First published in 1968

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the book that the movie Blade Runner (1982) is based of, and it’s Philip K. Dick’s first book I read, though I’ve watched many movie adaptations of his work, like Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.

I watched Blade Runner pretty late, only a few years ago, but didn’t remember much of the story, apart from the whole androids vs humans thing, so I read this book almost afresh. Another factor that pushed it to the top of my TBR is that a new Blade Runner movie is coming out, starring Ryan Gosling – titled Blade Runner 2049, so if you’re like me and would like to know more about the original work, now is a good time to start :).

The main character is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who goes after androids who “run away” – as androids have no rights to independence. The world building is very well done. The world as we know it has practically ended because of some mysterious dust, and most of the earth population has migrated to other planets. Thus the setting is a decaying earth, featuring characters who are left behind or have come back or stayed for some reasons. An interesting aspect that I observed is that the whole story is actually just set in one single day (or a single day and a bit). It’s a full on day for Rick Deckard!

It’s a very fun book to read, and perfect for me who often feel stuck on some slow going books – this one just flew by. But for a science fiction – a genre that mainly runs on ideas, I don’t think there’s any deep meaning or message in the book. If there’s any I couldn’t find it. The book was published in 1968, and the story is set in 2021. We are now in 2017, and we now know that we’re so far from making androids remotely close to being human. Not sure if that would ever happen in fact, not even for the next 100 years. So the idea of right to independence and freedom for androids seems moot. The idea that an android may have “soul” is irrelevant in even today’s world – it’s so pie in the sky.

And the book actually felt a bit dated for me. In Dick’s world, technology has advanced so far that people are having difficulties differentiating androids and humans, but there is no mobile phone. People use coin to make calls on land line – the only ‘advance’ thing being it’s a video call. Reading this in 2017, it felt very much that it was written before mobile phone technology was invented – and that it didn’t cross the author’s mind that in the near future, before humanoid androids are invented, everybody has a mobile phone with them 24/7, the size of a small calculator, which has plenty of functions including – guess what – a video call, and access to a vast amount of information. But this could be just me. I have previously mentioned about the phone technology being a thing that makes a book feel dated.

But at the end of the day it was a fun read, and I’ll definitely be up for more Philip K. Dick in the future!

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

I’d been meaning to read this book for years. Years. Maybe a decade. You know what it’s like – you put a book onto your TBR and a decade later it’s still there, unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, but I’m not sure whether it quite lived up to my expectation.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the first book by Jeanette Winterson I read. I first knew her from the “1001 books you must read before you die” list. I know she’s popular. I’ve even seen her in person at some Penguin’s event. I liked the sound of Oranges and I liked the title. I did enjoy reading it too, to a degree, but it felt like I wasn’t the targeted audience of the book. Let me explain.

Oranges is set somewhere in mid England, working class, Christian society. I’m not sure when it is set, but the book is published in 1985, so anytime before that I guess, the 60s or the 70s. If you know even a bit about this book, I think you’d already know that it is about a young woman coming out and coming to terms with her homosexuality. It’s semi-biographical, even the main character is called Jeanette.

It is a debut novel, and it read like one. I felt some parts were disjointed, but there were moments of brilliance. The story is interspersed with sort of fantastic tales (some from Arthurian legend?), which although I enjoyed reading, I had trouble connecting with the main story line. And this is where I put my case about not being the target audience. It seems Winterson wrote this book with “her own people” as the audience in mind – mid England, working class, Christian. I was raised in quite traditional Catholic/Christian family and society, so the religious references I understood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raised in other religions to “get it”. The English working class references I probably missed in much greater degree.

The point of reading is the access and ability to “jump” into people’s lives completely different from yours, which is what’s amazing about it. So I’m wondering, as a writer, should you make an effort to include people outside of your core audience? I don’t know the answer to that. But reading this book I couldn’t avoid the lingering feeling of being out of the circle, an unexpected audience on the side peeking in, and probably only got 50% of the in-jokes.

So to conclude, no, the book was not quite what I expected. But some parts of the book made me want to read more books by Winterson, especially the fantasy part. I liked her humour. It also reminded me of Amy Tan’s books, which just like Oranges, focus on primarily mother daughter relationship, while father’s role remains minuscule, if any. As Jeanette ruminates in the book: “As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless.” – p126

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

First published in 1882

I have never watched an adaptation of Treasure Island – except for Disney’s Treasure Planet if that counts, though I don’t remember much about it – so the book was new to me. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: an adventure story for boys. Unlike J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I couldn’t find appreciation on a different level, though I liked this a bit more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The book went up my reading queue when The Happy Reader x Joseph book club sent me an invitation and mailed the Penguin Classics book. It arrived a couple of weeks before the book club night – there was a real-life meet up in Kensington at one of Joseph’s store – and I reckoned I could finish 190 pages in 2 weeks, even as a slow reader that I am (I didn’t, but 30 pages away to finishing on the night). Not sure if I mentioned The Happy Reader here before, but I absolutely love the “magazine”. The Treasure Island issue will be for June, so they are still working on it. The Editor in Chief Seb Emina attended the book club in person and led the discussions. It was a great night. Hope to go to more of them in the future.

But going back to the story of Treasure Island, the main character is a teenager named Jim Hawkins, who meets a series of characters – most of them are pirates – and gets tangled in a series of adventures. He starts off living with mum at a family pub, but the discovery of a treasure map leads him to going on a journey to this treasure island.

I’m very wary of books about boats, because there seems to be a million boat related terms – all of which I never heard of in my life and have no real usage for in the future. This book was not an exception unfortunately, there are boat terms. Some of them I googled, some I let go. Luckily the narrative is straightforward and it doesn’t delve too much into boat technicalities. This is why I may never read Moby Dick.

For a book meant for boys, it felt quite grown-up. There are plenty of deaths and murders. And there is one character in particular that is a bit “grey”, and I was never convinced whether he was good or bad throughout the book. For a children (young adult?) book, it felt that Stevenson had gone a bit further to show that life is not as simple as black and white.

I have not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

ps: I now really look forward to watching Muppet Treasure Island!

Robert Louis Stevenson – born in Edinburgh, died in Samoa (!)

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin

Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...